It's difficult to describe the layers of complexity contained within Rebecca Schull's ensemble leading performance in writer/director Jeff Lipsky's latest film, the provocative yet realistic The Last. Most known to audiences for her acclaimed years-long stint as the quirky and lovable Fay on television's Wings, the 90-year-old Schull pours herself into this performance as the 92-year-old Claire, a long adored matriarch of a proud Jewish family whose firmly planted position as the moral center of her family is unfathomably shaken by her dual revelations of a terminal illness and a much darker, difficult to believe revelation from her years inside Auschwitz.
It's truly nothing short of a miracle that The Last even works, so incredibly bold is Lipsky's storytelling and so incredibly nuanced and honest is Schull's career-best performance. Schull is front-and-center, almost exclusively, during at least half of the film's just over two-hour running time including a near monologue that runs pretty much the entirety of 45 minutes that is nothing short of brilliant, brilliant acting.
Lipsky is no stranger to thoughtful, provocative cinema having such films as Molly's Theory of Relativity, Twelve Thirty, and 2016's Mad Women to his name, though perhaps nothing he's ever given us can match the remarkably difficult storyline contained within The Last. This is a film that could have derailed so easily, yet never does.
The film introduces us to Josh (AJ Cedeno), a young Modern Orthodox Jewish teacher of children with special needs whose new wife, Olivia (Jill Durso), is preparing for conversion to the faith. Lipsy regular and Tony Award winner Reed Birney stars as Harry, Josh's father and husband to Claire's granddaughter, Melody (Julie Fain Lawrence), whose role within the family structure is largely that of its most fervent and faithful member.
The Last makes for a riveting drama, almost stage-like in its relational presentation yet equally convincing as intimate, deeply personal cinema. Lipsky's story is truly more than thoughtful - it's challenging not just of its characters but of those watching the film as we're forced to ask ourselves "What would we do?" with such a deep, life-changing revelation and how would we allow it to alter our perceptions of someone we loved and respected.
It's not an easy question. There are no easy answers.
Both Cedeno and Durso give wonderfully authentic performances, Durso at times reduced to communicating her entire being's shift via body language and facial expressions. Both do remarkable work here, maintaining their absolute presence even during much of Schull's remarkable monologue.
Birney's turn here is equally admirable, simultaneously cynical yet transparent and vulnerable and very, very real. Julie Fain Lawrence is, perhaps, the quiet, centered cinematic glue that somehow manages to hold everything together as it surrounds Schull's universe.
Released into theaters by indie distributor Glass Half Full Media, The Last is the kind of film most appreciated by true cineastes who hunker themselves down in some dimly lit arthouse theater and immerse themselves in its world. It's not surprising, really, that a major studio wouldn't grab onto the film and Lipsky is likely better off for it because this indie gem truly needed an indie distributor to present it at its full-on glory.
If you get a chance to check out The Last in theaters, please do. However, as it is extended into home video markets this is a film that deserves your attention thanks to Lipsky's stellar storytelling and Schull's stand-out performance leading a stand-out ensemble.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic