Taking a breather from some of the physically demanding and sometimes villainous roles she’s played of late in the likes of Marvel franchises and HBO’s Westworld, Tessa Thompson stars in The Listener as a more unsung sort of superhuman: a crisis hotline worker.
Perhaps seeing a chance to push to nearly the limit that old thespian saying — sometimes attributed to performance coach Stella Adler — that “acting is reacting,” this spare, low-tech work mostly focuses on Thompson’s expressive face as she listens to calls for help from 10 very different people in distress. The voice cast offers a mix of famous (Margaret Cho, Alia Shawkat, Rebecca Hall) and less well-known names, democratically allotted roughly the same amount of air time by the film.
The Bottom Line
Modest but thoughtful and timely.
The Listener represents actor-director Steve Buscemi’s fifth directing credit, the second after Lonesome Jim where’s he’s stayed strictly behind the camera. (His last feature was a similarly lean two-hander, Interview from 2007, in which he also co-starred with Sienna Miller.) The whole collaboration feels undeniably stagey, but it’s still an empathic and frequently moving work that touches on the sheer volume of callers that workers like Thompson’s character, often unpaid volunteers, must contend with every day. Meanwhile, with so many people in the U.S. unable to afford medical or therapeutic help thanks to the chaos and bureaucracy of the American health care system, the rate of deaths of despair from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse continues to rise in many demographics, especially among communities of color.
The recent COVID pandemic, alluded to briefly in Alessandro Camon’s script, may be partly to blame for that mortality rise given the way many people were isolated during lockdown. But as the callers here illustrate, there’s more than enough regular, non-COVID-induced mental illness, abusive relationships and loneliness to keep hotline workers like Thompson’s “Beth” (as with many of the callers, that’s not her real name) busy through her night shift.
Some of the callers just want to talk to someone compassionate as they navigate difficulties, such as ex-convict Michael (Logan Marshall Green), who mentions that the last time he wore a bandana across his face in a store he got arrested, for armed robbery. He turns out to be one of the sweeter, more stable men Beth deals with, given some of the others sound deeply troubled, such as “incel” in training Ellis (Ricky Velez), who seethes with hatred of women, and Ray (Jamie Hector), a veteran dealing with PTSD who recounts traumatic war stories that lead him to drink.
The female callers are no less distraught, although it makes psychological sense that some are dealing less with their own disabilities or personal demons than the stresses of caring for others, like Corinne (Cho), the parent of a daughter with special needs, who feels perpetually “a day late and a dollar short.” A conversation with Jinx (Blue Del Barrio), a teenage runaway being pressured by her boyfriend to start turning tricks to pay for their drug habits, has a more didactic, culled-from-police-reports ring to it.
The one Beth seems to connect to best is fast-talking Sharon (Shawkat), an articulate woman with severe psychiatric issues whom Beth tries to guide toward finding an outlet for her pain in writing. Sharon calls back with a poem at the end, offering a somewhat artificially devised but soothing ray of hope.
The most interesting, and longest, conversation Beth has is with English-accented Laura (Hall), a clearly highly educated woman who practically dares Beth to come up with a persuasive argument as to why she shouldn’t kill herself. The dialogue between them opens up the terms of reference to encompass ethical philosophy, religion, Beth’s own personal story and the reasons she became a helpline worker, which she breaks protocol to share with Laura. Hall’s prowess as a vocal performer puts imaginary flesh on the disembodied voice we hear, and Thompson, who starred in Hall’s own directorial debut Passing, matches her note for note.
While the material could perhaps have worked just as easily as a podcast or other auditory performance, Buscemi, cinematographer Anka Malatynska, editor Kate Williams and the design team collaborate effectively to maintain visual interest throughout with cutaways from Beth’s face to the tchotchkes on her shelves, her adorable fluffy dog and the soft furnishings in her modest Los Angeles bungalow. We, like patients visiting a therapist at her home, are left to work out on our own what kind of person Beth is by the things around her and the way she talks and reacts, but in the end that’s all a kind of projection. What’s really important is the work of talking things through, a human need that too often goes unmet.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Logan Marshall-Green, Derek Cecil, Margaret Cho, Blu Del Barrio, Ricky Velez, Alia Shawkat, Jamie Hector, Casey Wilson, Bobby Soto, Rebecca Hall
Production companies: Hantz Motion Pictures, Olive Productions, Sight Unseen Pictures
Director: Steve Buscemi
Screenwriter: Alessandro Camon
Producers: Wren Arthur, Steve Buscemi, Oren Moverman, Lauren Hantz
William Stertz, Sean O’Grady, Tessa Thompson
Executive producers: John Hantz, Julia Lebedev, Eddie Vaisman, Suzanne Warren
Co-producers: Billy Mulligan, Kat Barnette, Joyce Pierpoline
Director of photography: Anka Malatynska
Production designer: Mboni Maumba
Costume designer: Bic Owen
Editor: Kate Williams
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Kimberly Ostroy
1 hour 36 minutes