The Listener REVIEW – A Quiet Effort

"Loneliness is a big slut."

The Listener
The Listener

Tessa Thompson plays Beth, a helpline volunteer who listens to anyone who calls in, fielding calls from those feeling broken and hopeless. And that’s essentially the entire movie. Beth listens to these callers, and often times there isn’t any resolution to these stories. They end because someone’s calling them to bed, or the caller abruptly ends the call without warning; other times there’s frustration because Beth isn’t the caller they seek.

What’s remarkable here is Thompson’s performance. Even when she’s just listening, she’s performing. We can see her reacting in subtle ways to what she’s being told on the phone, and from these small gestures or minute changes in her facial expression, we can discern which of these stories are particularly affecting to her. Her tone and voice is always lightly measured, reassuring, even when she’s frustrated or disgusted with a caller. It’s an exercise in empathy, to offer a listening ear even those who have done morally depraved things.

However, is there enough substance here for a full length film? Visually, it’s not very dynamic, with most of the film’s imagery close-ups of Thompson’s face while she listens to the calls. She does leave her apartment at one point to walk outside, when she listens to one of the toughest calls of the night. We can see her processing what to say, but also knowing that whatever she says might not be enough.

Single location films are not easy to pull off, since if there’s nothing particularly engaging for the viewer, we switch off. The Listener didn’t bore me, it was easy to get drawn in to the various stories, and the voice actors do an incredible job of keeping us listening. But there’s not much going on in terms of storytelling. These callers tell us their painful stories, relay their suffering to Beth, and then the call ends. It all feels a little one-note, especially when it becomes clear that these stories are chosen more for their dramatic quality than authenticity.

The one call that gives proceedings a bit of a jumpstart is Rebecca Hall’s Laura. She wants to know about Beth, which is a rare situation for Beth, who mostly listens and is never asked about herself. She’s unsure of how much to share, caught between her desire to protect her own privacy and help another human being through her story. Out of all the callers, Hall feels the most like a real person, maybe because their call is the closest thing to a conversation. At times she laughs at some of the things Beth says, or the little quips she herself makes.

As the pair debate the reasons why suicide is frowned upon, we hear Laura’s desperation for some kind of respite in the darkness of her life, and Beth’s desire to give her something to hold on to. Connection is the only thing that can save us from the palpable loneliness that threatens to surround us at any time, and by listening, Beth assuages her own as well.

Review screener provided.

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The Listener
The Listener reminds us about the importance of connection in our lives. While it has its affecting moments, visually it does feel a bit empty, and might have worked better in a different format.