Director: Steve Buscemi
Starring: Tessa Thompson
In The Listener, Tessa Thompson works through the night as a helpline volunteer, taking calls from people who just want to…talk really and she assumes the identity of Beth. Now, as an operator, she can’t give away her true identity, of course, and as it turns out, we don’t really learn a whole lot about Beth during the film. It’s a bit of a strange one this, on the whole, it seems like the film is undercooked somewhat and is desperately missing something to provide some narrative urgency or, honestly, meaning.
Now, in reality, The Listener is probably extremely accurate in portraying what a helpline operators shift or routine would look like, and it probably also would have been eye-rolling had one of the callers coincidentally been linked to Beth in a one-in-a-million chance (as it turns out, none of them are), but the film chugs along at such a pedestrian pace that it’s hard not to want something of any true excitement to happen.
Shot during COVID, the film takes place in one location - Beth’s house - and whilst fielding calls, she drifts throughout the residence, fiddling with lights and making coffee. Cinematographer Anka Malatynska lends warmth to the visuals and employs tight shots of Thompson’s face throughout to lend some flavour to proceedings, but, even at ninety minutes, The Listener meanders too much to really be compelling.
That’s no fault of Tessa Thompson’s. As a lone performer for the entirety of the film (aside from her dog), she commands the screen well and her demeanour allows us to warm to Beth, even if she is extremely guarded - though we do find out this is her last shift for a while, we are left to ponder why. The callers range from an incel, an ex-marine, a cop, and a sociology professor (played with a sharp British accent by an unseen Rebecca Hall) who essentially goads Beth into attempting to talk her down from suicide. There are others too but eventually everything seemed to blend into one conversation - Hall’s back-and-forth provided the bulk of the conversation but, like the others, it felt too staged and scripted. That’s the main issue throughout, none of the conversations feel genuine, and it's telling. That’s not to say there are no moments of interest here because there truly is, but the majority of the conversations felt surface level or lacking genuine depth to be affecting.
The Listener is the definition of fine. It’s competently directed, it looks inviting, and Thompson’s performance holds it together. The issue is it’s a challenging film to decipher in terms of what it offers and what we are truly meant to feel, and I came away with a rather empty feeling.
June 11th 2023