Working the night shift in a truck stop diner is a lot like working on a space station. No one plans to do it forever, but as the years fly by escape seems more and more impossible. There’s nothing outside your door but darkness and desolation. Also, you’re pretty unlikely to meet anyone new. If you do, it’s a life-altering event. In “The Off Hours,” writer/director Megan Griffiths paints a powerfully vivid picture of day-to-day life in a small industrial town that is disrupted by the arrival of a handsome stranger.
Francine (Amy Seimetz) is a young-old waitress who carries out her nocturnal coffee-slinging mission, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Her co-workers are equally detached, having resigned themselves to an unremarkable existence. In fact, everyone in Francine’s life seems in no hurry to improve his or her situation. That is, until Oliver (Ross Partridge) walks through the door. He’s a banker-turned-trucker on a new route that frequently brings him through town during Francine’s shift. He’s kind and soulful and seems to be just what Francine needs to reignite her snuffed life. Through he’s receptive to her flirting, he makes no secret of his status as a family man. She is appropriately discouraged by this revelation, but is nonetheless unable to stop herself from falling for him. He’s the opposite of everyone else in her life and he could sweep her off her feet if he weren’t already off the market.
Minor plots concern Francine’s colleagues. The other waitress, Jelena, is less-than-thrilled about her side job as a call girl. Stu, the diner’s owner, is a divorced, alcoholic father to a teenage girl who fails to deal with personal issues as impending tragedy looms. Francine also has a complicated relationship with Corey (Scoot McNairy), her roommate and foster brother who harbors more than fraternal feelings for her. Director Lynn Shelton gives a commanding performance in a small role as Stu’s long-suffering ex.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but Amy Seimetz pops in the lead role. She imbues Francine with a great deal of depth, quickly shattering the first impression of a simple small-town beauty. Her expressions speak volumes without going into detail about her past. She can’t stop herself from flirting with Oliver but she clearly knows that acting on her feelings is ill advised. He invigorates her and it’s not just because he’s a new boning prospect. She’s not incomplete without a man. It’s just that sometimes it takes someone new to remind you of your potential. Francine is rare bird in cinema: a complete female character with complex desires.
“The Off Hours” is a great film, but be warned. It’s is a character-driven piece, meaning it’s pretty light on the action. There are numerous shots of people staring meaningfully off into the middle distance. It’s got (literally) gritty realism. Everybody is really sad and nobody gets what he or she wants. In other words, you really have to be in the mood for it.