This past September, Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths won the 2012 Stranger Genius Award for film. Her third feature, the razor-sharp human-trafficking drama Eden, had just blown minds at the Seattle International Film Festival, where it won a slew of honors (including best actress for Jamie Chung) and confirmed Griffiths's status as a vital new American filmmaker. Eden will open theatrically in spring 2013, and The Stranger will be promoting it ferociously. (When a film this capital-I Important is also this fucking brilliant, attention must be paid.)
But for now, I want to ignore Eden in favor of Griffiths's previous feature, The Off Hours, which premiered at Sundance 2011, earned Benjamin Kasulke an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best cinematography, and won Griffiths the best director prize at the Ourense Film Festival in Spain. However, I didn't see The Off Hours until last month, and I sincerely regret this delay.
What is it that keeps a film stranded in a Netflix queue? What is that place where you're interested enough to click "Add to my list" but not enough to click "Play," at least not yet? (Coincidentally, these are questions explored with great insight in The Off Hours, but we'll get to that in a bit.) For The Off Hours and me, it was a combination of off-putting preconception and laziness.
My preconceptions were stoked almost entirely by how the film presented itself—how it was required to present itself to the marketplace, I now understand, but at the time, all I knew was the IMDb synopsis: "A waitress working the night shift at a roadside diner in a small, industrial town becomes intrigued by a charming truck driver, while the diner's owner struggles to keep his dwindling business afloat." In the hall of exhausted sources of lyricism, the all-night diner ranks somewhere between the hooker with a heart of gold and the Great American Road Trip. How was I to know that Griffiths understood this, that she knowingly accepted the challenge of making a smart, lyrical film set in a milieu that was flirting with kitsch by the time of Tom Waits's third album? How was I to know that The Off Hours wasn't one of those rudimentary/transitional movie-shaped objects young filmmakers make before finding their voices, but a knockout accomplishment in its own right?
For answers to all these questions and more, I could've just pressed play on Netflix streaming, but that's where laziness comes in. Assessing my entertainment choices at the end of a day, I repeatedly skipped over The Off Hours, a truck-stop tone poem that demanded my undivided attention, for things like Pootie Tang and original-recipe Law & Order, which don't mind if you futz with e-mail or fall asleep. Then came that glorious Saturday last month, when all-day rain and impending flu feelings conspired to erase all guilt about spending the afternoon in front of the TV. Up first: The Off Hours, which slowly but surely blew me away.
A good summation of the film comes from the official Off Hours website: "In the restless world of the night shift at a highway diner, [a young woman's] life consists of casual encounters and transient friendships. What she wants is out of reach—or is it that she's lost track of wanting anything at all?" What can't be captured by any plot summation is how the film moves and the richness of the world it creates. More than anything, The Off Hours is an exploration of a state of being—a passive state of being, where you take your feet off the figurative pedals of your life and just check out and coast. Some people call it stasis, and it seems like a less-than-compelling subject for a feature film, but Griffiths mines it to create a formal masterwork, where a state of being becomes a physical place, inhabited by an array of characters that illuminate individual aspects of this shared state of being.
Griffiths's eye for images and situations that capture this elusive state is unfailingly precise, capturing an array of tiny moments that add up to something more. Coming home to find a drum track playing and everybody gone. Eating what's in front of you because it's there. Wondering if your coworkers are your friends or just people you work with. Fucking out of familiarity and boredom. Remembering to bring toilet paper home from work. Griffiths and cinematographer Kasulke create a world that flirts with dreamscape-iness but is rooted in real life. It's almost Chekovian, the way every character is a friend/enemy/lover/judge of every other character, all of them stuck in this place together. It's a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind creation, and you should watch it immediately.