Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago.
Anyone who has seen Mat Kirkby‘s Oscar-winning short The Phone Call will be familiar with the emotional beats at the back of Gavin Michael Booth‘s feature film Last Call. Both focus on a man contacting a suicide hotline for someone to talk to (if not someone to help) and the woman who fatefully picks up. Whereas the short focused solely on the latter as she works through her protocols and does whatever she can to try and talk the former down, however, Booth embraces an ambitious choice to show both sides of the conversation simultaneously via dual one-take shots shown in tandem with a rotating split-screen that shifts between landscape and portrait. He goes one step further narratively too by commencing this harrowing ordeal with a wrong number.
The synopses label it as a misdial, but Scott (Daved Wilkins, who co-wrote with Booth) very clearly reads the number off the slip of paper he took from a flyer promising he “wasn’t alone” so Beth (Sarah Booth) can confirm he actually dialed it correctly. It’s therefore a misprint instead—an intriguing detail in and of itself considering there’s a call center somewhere thinking no one in the city is suicidal because no one has ever called them asking for help. (I’d love to see that movie too.) What is Beth to do, though, upon discovering this man on the phone isn’t looking to speak to someone about career advice (she’s a custodian at a college)? Could you just hang-up and go about the rest of your night?
I’d like to think I wouldn’t. I’d like to think I’d do what she does: find a computer, Google “crisis hotline,” and do my best to give Scott what he needs. These things often end up being solved by something as simple as listening. So if Beth lends an attentive ear and let’s Scott get his troubles off his chest, maybe he’ll tell her he’s feeling better and both can go to sleep with a hopeful outlook for tomorrow. She’s as desperate for that as he is considering she’s stuck on an extra shift despite her babysitter explaining that her son Gregory never came home after going to the movies. The only reason Beth answered the phone is because she’s been waiting for an update about his return.
While it is a plot contrivance to get her to pick up, however, it’s also a relevant feeling of helplessness to provide her the empathy necessary to understand Scott’s sorrow. He’s a parent too—one who has become estranged from his teenage daughter Emily ever since the death of his son four years ago to this day. Scott has never recovered from that tragedy and has pretty much been drinking himself to death ever since en route to a divorce from his ex-wife Amanda and prolonged unemployment. His entire world fell apart in an instant and Beth is on the cusp of perhaps experiencing that same pain depending on what happens with her son. If she gets Scott to open up, maybe she can save him.
That’s a big ask, though. We don’t know why yet (Beth does more Googling), but we can tell Scott’s hurt is deep by the fact he keeps changing the subject whenever it skirts with this truth. And it’s no surprise this happens often enough for him to get angry and put the phone down. Beth is doing her best, but sensitive questions get asked insensitively when your mind is racing towards other topics while trying to focus on a man who might kill himself while she listens. So the suspense is real. Beth’s frustrations and futility are real. Unless Scott tells her his number, address, or last name for the police, him disappearing from the line is it. She’ll have no alternative besides thinking the worst.
That won’t help anyone. Beth is already trying not to think the worst where it concerns Gregory, so doing the same with Scott will drag her under psychologically with long-lasting effects. Think about it. Scott living means it won’t be on the news or in the paper. His living means Beth will never know what happened. Closure means needing him to die. Talk about a no-win situation. So she works tirelessly to figure out her next steps. She pays attention to the names and scenarios he does provide in passing so that she can try and figure out an alternative means of getting to him despite his reluctance to allow it. As he gets quieter and drunker, she grows more desperate. And we’re left waiting in suspended animation.
A big part of Last Call‘s success therefore comes from the technical achievement and inherent uncertainty of its premise. Whereas one-take dramas often lose their propulsive drive because they’re forced to show unnecessary moments traditional films edit out, this is a tight 77-minutes composed of a continuous fight or flight adrenaline rush whether dialogue is spoken or not. Things actually get more tense during the latter because that’s when Beth is scrambling for answers. The calmer Wilkins’ performance gets due to his substance abuse, the more frantic Booth becomes with the weight of everything upon her shoulders. So while Scott’s end might be left to interpretation, Beth’s won’t. No matter Gregory’s fate, this mother of two will heed Scott as a cautionary tale—not a glimpse of her future.