Review: ‘The Listener’

Tessa Thompson Delivers A One Woman Show As A Crisis Operator On One Tough Night

One challenge illustrated by the pandemic (along with racial, social, and economic inequality) is how collectively we have not fundamentally addressed mental health. If you just stop and think about the last 4 years, there has been a great deal of collective trauma here in the United States, if not the world on a grand scale. And the challenges we deal with daily are things we should take seriously. Steve Buscemi, known mostly for his acting roles and his volunteering decides to combine both in his latest film (back in the director’s chair after more than 17 years) in The Listener, which showcases a day in the life of a volunteer crisis line operator and the people she encounters during her calls.

“Beth” (Tessa Thompson), who doesn’t use her real name for security reasons, volunteers for a group of volunteers who man a crisis line during the night hours, because that seems to be when people need the most assistance. When night falls, she makes herself some coffee, feeds her dog, boots up her laptop, puts in her earpiece, and takes calls from people dealing with all sorts of issues. Beth is good at her job as she just seems to know the right things to say to help people come back from the edge, but the most important part of what she does is she listens (hence the title of the film).

Tessa Thompson is the only on-screen person for the entire runtime of The Listener, and the entire film is her listening and responding to a great deal of people providing voicework (including Margaret Cho, Rebecca Hall, Jamie Hector, Logan Marshall-Greene, Jamie Hector, and a few others) as they each have their own interpersonal conflicts. The Listener takes place during the pandemic in an unnamed city, but each person’s challenges are very relatable. There’s an ex-con who finds comfort in the isolation of the pandemic, a woman dealing with an abusive boyfriend, a woman who admits she’s “crazy” and speaks in poetry, an incel who’s mad at the world for women’s lack in interest in him, an Iraq/Afghanistan vet dealing with PTSD, a cop who knows he’s working for a corrupt police department, and an educator who unfortunately gives a pretty decent argument for why suicide is good (the writing for her exchange and Beth is the highlight of the film). Each call gives you a different take on a mental health challenge in this country, and also gives you a different side of Beth and she tries to help each person.

Because Beth is the only person on screen, Tessa Thompson really shines in The Listener. Most of her acting in the film is not with her words, but with her eyes. Whether it is her reacting to an incel starting to masturbate to her voice or having to try and remain unbiased as a cop is telling about his racists superiors who permanently disabled a young black man and then covered it up, or her finally letting herself go when talking with the educator about suicide and her own personal life, she truly delivers a fine performance as an incredibly empathetic person.

Steve Buscemi also does a great deal with directing. Even though the film takes place in Beth’s house, kudos to cinematographer Anka Malatynska who captures the mood very effectively from person to person, from room to room. Also, kudos to writer Alessandro Camon who makes every character incredibly believable and relatable, even though we don’t get to see them on screen, we still feel their pain… and once again, the back and forth between Beth and the educator interested in suicide is incredibly well written and layered. The only drawback for The Listener is that it’s “too small” if that makes sense. It would be interesting to see other crisis operators or see the phone calls from other people’s perspectives, especially the incel as he was incredibly troubled. But I get the choice to focus only on Beth, and that probably makes the film better for reducing its scale.

The Listener works because it’s an intimate character study on mental illness and the challenges we all face, even the main character who is there to help people but has her own demons. It helps illustrate that we all should have someone to talk to when we are down on our luck, or just need to speak with someone to tell them everything will be better.

The Listener is currently available on VOD and in theaters.