Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The Last is a difficult movie to review. Not just because it has challenging subject matter, but also because it is based around several surprising revelations that would be more effective if the audience experiences them as the characters do. I will try to be vague when discussing the plot. A Jewish family is forced to confront their faith and their understanding of themselves after their 92 year-old holocaust survivor matriarch discloses some massive secrets about her past. It is about what it means to be a Jew and how strongly our family’s past defines who we are. There is definitely a lot to think about here and a few of the speeches are engaging. Unfortunately, the staging is flat, causing sections of the many lengthy monologues to drag. In the end, I am unsure what point is being made. It feels provocative for the sake of being provocative.
This is a very talky movie. Most of it consists of one character speaking for a long time as the others listen. There is little movement in the frame and the unnatural cutting to reaction shots does not help. The performances are good and there are some really intriguing stretches of dialogue, but it comes off more as a filmed stage play. That is not, on its own, a negative. However, the characters are symbols instead of people so their words never go beyond the conceptual to the practical. Though the ideas are there, The Last does not allow them enough room to breathe so it can examine the consequences of what has been said. It is just speech, reaction, speech, reaction for two hours.
The cast is certainly game to carry the weight of the story almost exclusively through their dialogue. AJ Cedeno is Josh, who is agnostic, yet dedicated to his faith. He is soon to marry Jill Durso’s Olivia, a non-Jew who has been fascinated with the religion since before she met Josh and is in the process of converting. His parents are graphic novelist Harry (Reed Birney), also agnostic, and obituary writer Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence). In one way or another, all of their lives are driven by Judaism. Their conversations are philosophically complex even before Melody’s grandmother, Claire (Rebecca Schull), drops some life-changing bombshells about her WW2 experiences.
There is a lot of emotion inherent in this material, but The Last is about the words, not how they are delivered. Cedeno and Durso fare okay. Birney and Lawrence have a couple of powerful moments. The standout is 90 year-old Rebecca Schull (the only Jewish actor in the main cast). She has the most dialogue and has to handle all the heavy lifting in the plot. Though Claire’s confession raises questions the screenplay is not interested in answering, Schull impressively paints a believable picture of a woman finally unveiling her true self to those closest to her. Considering what she tells them, I do not completely understand her motivations. Schull absolutely seems like she does. She makes Claire a far more compelling character than she probably was on the page.
The Last is not an easy watch. Some viewers will be moved, others will be offended. It deals with tough issues and offers no simple takeaways. It brings up the holocaust, personal faith and familial history, approaching Judaism in a way that is rarely seen in an American movie. While I cannot recommend The Last, I cannot entirely dismiss it either. It is an interesting work, unafraid to make its audience uncomfortable. Even if it is awkward and ultimately unsuccessful, I am glad I saw it.
2¾ out of 5
Rebecca Schull as Claire
AJ Cedeno as Josh
Jill Durso as Olivia
Reed Birney as Harry
Julie Fain Lawrence as Melody
Written and Directed by Jeff Lipsky