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Short Film Spotlight: Night Shift

The Bright Wall/Dark Room Short Film Spotlight is a monthly feature celebrating independent short films by emerging filmmakers. To submit a film for consideration, visit our profile at FilmFreeway.

I have never found a way to be comfortable around bathroom attendants. On the rare occasions that I’ve visited a bar or restaurant classy enough to employ a man just to stand by the sink and unobtrusively offer me toiletries, I have hurried by with as little interaction as possible. Yet in succumbing to my own awkwardness surrounding this role that strikes me as so profoundly unnatural, I give myself permission to do something awful, something I’ve only recently come to recognize: I dehumanize a human being.

This realization was spurred by Marshall Tyler’s Night Shift, which tells the story of one night in the life of bathroom attendant Olly Jeffries (Tunde Adebimpe, giving an astonishingly vulnerable performance), an employee at what we can only presume is an upscale nightclub—as Olly’s perspective is limited to the ambient noise that follows patrons into the bathroom, so is ours. This is a man I would hurry past to avoid facing how unpleasant his night’s work seems to me, but in this warm, funny, heartbreaking film, Tyler refuses to let me off so easily.

The film announces itself with a series of still tableaus across Olly’s apartment—a fridge crowded with magnets, takeout coupons, and photos; pots and pans stacked in a drying rack—that feels simultaneously naturalistic and deliberate. Though we’re observing clutter, there’s an order to the set decoration by Tyler and production designer Amy Jo Diaz; we may never cut directly to the spines of the Bogart and Brando biographies stacked in his bedroom, but their placement conveys volumes about this man’s ambitions and attitudes. And after painting this vivid portrait of a cluttered life, Tyler introduces us not to Olly himself, but to his uniform—white collared shirt, black bowtie and vest. Having implicitly humanized Olly through his surroundings, Tyler immediately dehumanizes him for the viewer, identifying him by his uniform rather than his face, reminding audiences what so many of us see when looking at a man like him: not the person but the role.

As we process all this static visual information, we’re privy to a voicemail from Tracey (China Shavers), Olly’s estranged wife, who begs him, with pained resignation, to finally sign their divorce papers. While it’s an effective backstory delivery vehicle, the choice to reveal this information on a message that’s being ignored by Olly will go on to gather meaning and weight over the film’s 16-minute runtime. This is a man who would rather evade his troubles even as they pound on the gates of his life, a man so miserably comfortable in stasis that he seems content with this lifestyle of watching a portable DVD player and listening to sounds that most of us hurry through a bathroom to escape.

I linger so significantly on the opening moments because it’s this quick conceptual and thematic legwork that allows Tyler to spend the rest of the runtime unfurling his endlessly durable structural conceit: as Olly sits on his stool, his array of colognes, hair products, and cigarettes perched beside him, a parade of nightclub patrons—virtually all of them falling somewhere in the upper range on the scale of mundane grotesquerie—complicate his shift. Like a Buckingham Palace guard, Olly is forced to remain dispassionate while these men use him as the object of their deranged night-out impulses, a montage that reaches its apotheosis with the man who offers escalating bribes until finally hitting an offer Olly can’t refuse and being allowed to bring a girl into the bathroom for a frenzied tryst in a stall, after which Olly will be forced, with grim acceptance, to dispose of a certain used item, abandoned by a man who clearly sees Olly as unworthy of his consideration.

On some level, Night Shift is a tale as old as time, the story of a man stuck in neutral with too much existential inertia to stop his skid into oblivion. But what this film has in its arsenal that so many ennui-soaked stories lack is the perfectly-chosen backdrop of tile and plumbing that serves as both a hook for a viewer—admit it, your curiosity is at least piqued by the notion of a story taking place entirely in a public restroom—and a unique plot engine. It stands to reason that the more awful the setting a hero is placed in, the stronger our desire to see that hero fight their way out, and a life spent sitting vigil in a public bathroom is about as unbearable as it gets.

This setting also provides Olly’s painfully specific dark night of the soul. At the zenith of a torrent of harassment by one patron who sees him as a “toilet troll,” Olly is faced with a $20 bill dropped into a puddle of urine, and forced to decide whether this payout—an unusually large tip but hardly a fortune—is worth the indignity of retrieving it. Rather than merely showing his agony and eventual surrender, though, Tyler makes us linger through the procedural steps of washing and drying the bill. Not only does acquiring the filthy cash mean surrendering a portion of Olly’s soul, it means even more tedious work.

Following Olly’s descent into urine-soaked hell, Tyler finally allows his moment of catharsis. Lurching out of the bathroom, Olly drags Tracey in and begins to dance—at first for her, and then with her. It’s a moment of ecstatic emotion, a body we’ve seen only in coiled reservation suddenly loosed upon his environment, defiantly demonstrating that there’s life and worth left in him. The more intimate the sequence grows, the more stylized it becomes, landing in full expressionism as Olly and Tracey clutch each other bathed in red light.

This emotional fantasia would seem to beg a question that’s common to stories blending the mundane with more fantastical touches: Did that happen in the real world or just in Olly’s head?

It’s a question that irks me every time I see it crop up. Every film takes place within its own hermetic reality, one contained within the bounds of its runtime, and if a sequence isn’t explicitly coded as fantasy, then it’s true within the bounds of this story’s reality. None of this is taking place in “the real world,” and so why should we deny Olly a surreal explosion of passion after his night of quiet agony just because it doesn’t follow the rules we’re forced to abide by?

Olly is in the habit of listening to self-help tapes during his commute, and at the start of his night, a calm, serene woman assures him that he is “a divine expression of the universal.” Like so much new-age affirmation, these comforting words sound more substantive than they actually are. And yet as he endures a night that ends on an indication that things may finally be turning for the better, Olly does seem like an avatar for some universal urges and struggles. I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that the more specific a story, the more universal its impacts can feel, that a viewer can far more easily map their own analogues onto an intensely detailed story than one that tries to be broadly relatable. Olly’s struggle touches the universal not because of our own personal experience with fishing a twenty out of a pool of urine, but because we’ve all handled our own inner urine-soaked twenties and longed for the redemptive dance to follow. Night Shift touches the universal, and the divine, in its own small way, and all without ever losing sight of the urinal over its shoulder.