The HoloFiles

REVIEW: The Listener

By George & Josh Bate

the listener review

Filmmakers have addressed issues of mental health in a variety of stories. Once Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest notably followed a group of struggling patients under the grip of the malicious Nurse Ratched in an inpatient psychiatric word. Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, meanwhile, was a therapist for a young man coming to grips with relationship issues and his genius-level IQ amidst an impoverished background. The HBO series In Treatment followed the work of a psychotherapist more intricately following a therapist’s weekly sessions with patients over the course of 130 episodes. Now, with The Listener, director Steve Buscemi and star Tessa Thompson shine the spotlight on a different facet of mental health in chronicling the work of a crisis helpline volunteer.

The Listener follows Beth (played by Tessa Thompson), a crisis helpline volunteer who fields calls from people struggling with a variety of mental health concerns. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the help calls have become more frequent and more serious, making Beth’s job all the more difficult. Motivating her to tackle such a difficult job is Beth’s own story, a battle with mental health that remains under wraps for much of the film.

The film begins with Thompson’s Beth waking up as the sun sets and the night arrives. The nights happen to be the times when most people struggle and call the helpline, meaning Beth’s workday gets started as many of ours end. Beth works from home, accompanied by her dog Coltrane as she takes calls from people struggling with intimate partner violence, substance use, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Director Steve Buscemi is known for his work eliciting laughs in front of the camera, but here he leans into his dramatic sensibilities following up his directorial work on episodes of The Sopranos, amongst other shows, and a range of films, including Trees Lounge, Animal Factory, Interview, and Lonesome Jim. Buscemi takes on a number of admirable challenges in directing The Listener.

For starters, the only actor seen on screen is Tessa Thompson. Buscemi places an immense weight on Thompson’s shoulders by having her singlehandedly carry the film’s admittedly heavy emotional weight. Without a realistic and empathic lead performance, The Listener simply would not work, neither as the story of a crisis helpline worker nor as a broader commentary on mental health. Thompson takes this challenge in her stride, however, with a nuanced and authentic performance. As the listener of helpline calls, Thompson’s character often goes long stretches of the film without saying much of anything, leaving the audience to linger on Thompson’s face as she processes the words of a caller off-screen. Thompson doesn’t overdo her performance as she portrays a whole spectrum of emotions with realistic and almost indiscernibly subtle changes in her facial expression. For instance, when one of the callers reveals that he used deepfake technology to make porn content about a woman he liked, Thompson opts against a heightened or overly dramatic reaction. Instead, she conveys a quiet discomfort balanced with an outward empathy that her job necessitates, which proves far more effective. Thompson brilliantly exhibits the calmness and peacefulness of an ideal crisis helpline volunteer with her performance and, in turn, makes the audience feel like one of her callers – calm and at peace. In this sense, Thompson’s performance is an unexpectedly visceral and immersive one.

On the other line of these calls are an array of people whose mental health difficulties on this one night have led them to call the crisis helpline. Actors Rebecca Hall and Logan Marshall-Green are among the actors who play these callers, who, overall, vary in both the grip they have on the audience and the quality of the performances that bring them to life. Most of the performances of the off-screen callers are powerful and emotionally impactful, but generally there is a sense of authenticity lacking. While Thompson feels natural in delivering a realistic performance, the callers are often brought to life by more elevated and, ultimately, less believable performances.

Lingering under the surface of these calls is the secret history of a personal mental health battle for Thompson’s character. This is hinted at several times throughout, but isn’t given full attention until the film’s final caller. Both the revelation of Beth’s mental health journey and the nature of this final call unfortunately lack the intended emotional gut punch. All of the calls in the film serve as little vignettes worthy of individual short films, but it’s clear that screenwriter Alessandro Camon and director Buscemi intended for this final call to carry the most emotional weight. Ultimately, while this climactic call offers some intriguing philosophical points to ponder, it isn’t as emotional as some of the film’s earlier calls. This, coupled with a somewhat underwhelming resolution to Beth’s character, makes for a largely unsatisfying ending.

VERDICT: 7/10

Anchored by a nuanced, empathic, and realistic performance from Tessa Thompson, The Listener shines a light on a type of mental health provider seldom given attention in films and television. On one side of the film’s crisis helpline calls, there is Thompson’s subtle and surprisingly immersive performance. But, on the other side of these calls, there is less believability with a series of more elevated performances. Although the ending lacks the intended emotional gut punch, Buscemi’s film taps into a series of resonant themes and issues with admirable care and attention.

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