Taking a break from some of the physically demanding and sometimes villainous roles she’s played in Marvel franchises and HBOs lately west worldTessa Thompson stars in The listener as a more unsung kind of superhuman: a crisis hotline employee.
Perhaps seeing an opportunity to push almost to the limit that old thespian adage — sometimes attributed to performance coach Stella Adler — that “acting is reacting,” this sparse, low-tech work focuses primarily on Thompson’s expressive face as she listens. to calls for help from 10 very different people in need. The voice cast features a mix of well-known (Margaret Cho, Alia Shawkat, Rebecca Hall) and lesser-known names, democratically speaking roughly the same amount of airtime throughout the film.
It comes down to
Modest but attentive and current.
The listener represents the fifth directing by actor-director Steve Buscemi, the second after Lonely Jim where has he gone strictly behind the camera. (His last characteristic was an equally slender two-handed, Interview from 2007, in which he also co-starred with Sienna Miller.) The whole collaboration feels undeniably staged, but it’s still an empathetic and often moving work that touches on the sheer number of callers that employees like Thompson’s character, often unpaid volunteers , have to struggle 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 U.S. health care system, desperation deaths from suicide and drug and alcohol abuse continue to rise in many demographics, especially between communities of color.
The recent COVID pandemic, briefly alluded to in Alessandro Camon’s script, may be partly responsible for that rise in the death rate, given the way many people were isolated during the lockdown. But as the callers here illustrate, there’s more than enough mainstream, non-COVID-induced mental illness, abusive relationships, and loneliness to call hotline workers like Thompson’s “Beth” (as with many of the callers, that’s not her real name) to keep her night shift busy.
Some callers just want to talk to someone who is compassionate as they navigate difficulties, such as ex-con Michael (Logan Marshall Green), who mentions that the last time he wore a bandana over his face in a store, he was arrested for armed robbery. robbery. He turns out to be one of the sweeter, more stable men Beth has to deal with, as some of the others sound deeply distressed, such as “incel” in training Ellis (Ricky Velez), who is brimming with misogyny, and Ray (Jamie Hector). ), a veteran dealing with PTSD who tells traumatic war stories that led him to drink.
The female callers are no less distraught, though psychologically it makes sense that some have less to do with their own disabilities or personal demons than with the stress of caring for others, such as Corinne (Cho), the parent of a special needs daughter. , who are constantly “a day late and a dollar short”. A conversation with Jinx (Blue Del Barrio), a teenage runaway pressured by her boyfriend into playing tricks to pay for their drug use, sounds more didactic, from police reports.
The one that Beth seems to feel most comfortable with is the fast-talking Sharon (Shawkat), an articulate woman with severe psychiatric problems who tries to help Beth find an outlet for her pain in writing. Sharon calls back with a poem at the end, a somewhat artificially conceived but soothing glimmer of hope.
The most interesting and longest conversation Beth has is with English-accented Laura (Hall), an obviously highly educated woman who practically challenges Beth to come up with a compelling argument as to why she shouldn’t commit suicide. The dialogue between them opens up the frame of reference and includes 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 artist gives imaginary flesh to the disembodied voice we hear, and Thompson, who starred in Hall’s own directorial debut passmatches her note for note.
While the material might have worked just as easily as a podcast or other aural performance, Buscemi, cinematographer Anka Malatynska, editor Kate Williams and the design team work together effectively to maintain visual interest with cutaways from Beth’s face to the tchotchkes on her shelves. , her adorable furry dog, and the furnishings in her modest Los Angeles bungalow. We, like patients who visit a therapist in her home, have to figure out for ourselves what kind of person Beth is by the things around her and the way she talks and reacts, but in the end it’s all kind of a projection. What really matters is talking about things, a human need that all 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 Buscemic
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