“A very contained story, Steve Buscemi’s fifth feature as a director strips down the ills that plague America to a series of conversations between a single actress (an outstanding Tessa Thompson) and a series of voice actors, yet manages to elicit tension, drama, and compassion while poignantly and subtly pointing out those ills.”
Beth gets ’em all: former inmates that worry about returning to a normal life; people that worry the world is going to hell, trapped in social media bubbles; men trying to seek help sorting out domestic disputes; women trying to seek help escaping domestic abuse; police officers trying to deal with the transgressions of their colleagues; incels, suicidal people, people with mental health issues, the odd ‘stroker’ (yes, that means exactly what you think it means). Working as a volunteer for a helpline, armed with a pleasant voice and tons of empathy, Beth fields calls every night in the hopes of saving someone, or putting someone’s mind at ease and making them feel a little better. In recent times the number of calls is increasing, and she senses that at some point she will lose somebody on the line. Yet she continues listening, trying to put a silver lining into the lonely, broken, and worrisome lives of the people on the other end.
A very contained story, Steve Buscemi’s fifth feature as a director strips down the ills that plague America to a series of conversations between a single actress (an outstanding Tessa Thompson) and a series of voice actors, yet manages to elicit tension, drama, and compassion while poignantly and subtly pointing out those ills. Part of this is down to the sharp writing of Alessandro Camon (nominated for an Academy Award for Owen Moverman’s The Messenger), whose dialogue feels realistic and makes each of the conversations a miniature with a distinct build-up. One half of the conversation is merely reflective, a sympathetic sounding board that reacts to the conversation partner but lets Thompson do the heavy lifting in terms of the emotions of the character, given that Beth cannot really let those emotions shine through in her voice and words. The callers, on the other hand, have no faces, which means their words have to paint the picture, and it is there that Camon’s screenplay shines.
Another part of why The Listener, despite a simple premise and setup that might lead to criticism of it being a filmed play, works so well is the way Buscemi uses the camera and framing to create rhythm in both the individual segments that are the calls and the film as a whole. Slight panning or zooming heightens the tension, while isolating Thompson within the frame ensures focus, both on Thompson’s acting and the important moments in the conversation. He lets Thompson peer into the camera at times, not so much to break the fourth wall but to let us peer into her soul. He mostly confines Beth to her apartment, having her do the simple things ones does while on the phone (although few people doodle so artistically as she does). Once we get to the conversation that can be seen as the ‘final act’ of the film, a 25-minute sparring match between Beth and a former sociology professor planning suicide, he lets Beth get out of the house, which somehow raises the stakes for this particular call. Crafting a 90-minute film of just people talking, and on top of that hiding half of the people in the conversations, Buscemi still draws you to the edge of your seat with this finale that leaves the viewer hanging when it comes to the fate of the caller, only to end the film with a hopeful coda when Beth gets a return call from one of her earlier clients.
The third and final part that makes The Listener click in all the right places is Tessa Thompson’s stunning performance as the central character. Given that for most of the film Beth is merely reactive, restrained by her role as a ‘listener’, Thompson has to rely on facial expressions to convey where her emotions are at any given point. Even her tone and level of voice has to be constant throughout, soothing and understanding, but Thompson’s facial expressions show that Beth’s empathy is not an act even if her voice is affected and in a sense an ‘act’. At times Beth lets her guard down, in particular in that titanic conversation near the end where she opens up about her own back story (and we get to learn her actual name). Thompson modulates these moments perfectly, keeping the drama small and intimate, and thus more believable (it also shows how hard this line of work must be). The performance is wonderfully understated, which makes it all the more powerful given the character she is playing, turning it into one of the best performances of the year.
Beyond the personal stories The Listener also tackles a kaleidoscope of larger issues, without hitting them straight on. Two years of lockdowns have exacerbated loneliness and feelings of displacement, but also because most of life was moved online completely the existing problems were magnified and led to increased despair. The film taps into this, but also subtly deals with issues like the lack of mental health care in the US, the problems that exist within American police forces, and the rise of domestic abuse because people were basically locked in with their partners for a prolonged time. As Beth notes that the number of calls is on the rise, it is not just something that informs the character and the story, but also sends a message to the audience. It would go too far to call The Listener a cry for help, but it does make one think about a crisis of mental well-being in a society where you can only find a listening ear by calling a stranger. The volunteer work that people like Beth do in real life is invaluable, and the film is also an ode to the legions manning these hotlines. That The Listener also captivates for its full runtime is almost a nice bonus, but that would sell such a perfect amalgamation of writing, directing, and acting short. Probably too small to make a major dent, this film will hopefully find the audience it deserves, an audience that appreciates intelligent conversation about real issues with a magnetic performance as the cherry on top.