The Listener

Not many actors can be alone onscreen for ninety minutes and hold your attention. Tessa Thompson can now be added to that short list. The Listener is just her in an apartment talking on the phone, yet it doesn’t get boring because of the empathy she brings to her performance. I was reminded of Louis Malle’s 1981 My Dinner with Andre, a two-hour dinner conversation between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. Although not in the same category as that exquisitely-scripted masterpiece, the film similarly capitalizes on the power of discussion.

Thompson is Beth, a helpline volunteer who talks to an assortment of callers every night. Some are lonely and want another person to converse with. Others have genuine problems, like the convicted felon trying to readjust to life on the outside or the woman with bipolar disorder whose scattered thoughts are driving her crazy. Still others are perverts who like to pleasure themselves. And then there’s Laura (voiced by Rebecca Hall), the suicidal academic who turns the tables on Beth, getting her to reveal her own struggles.


Alessandro Camon’s screenplay nicely staggers the calls so that each one is different from the one before. The movie therefore achieves a nice rhythm, with heavier elements balanced out by lighter ones. Director Steve Buscemi keeps his camera in observational mode, never calling attention to an angle or movement. He simply puts us inside Beth’s apartment and allows us to listen to these fascinating people, just as she does. Different parts of her place are highlighted with each call, while a short section outside helps stave off visual stagnancy.

It's a wise choice, because Thompson is the true focal point. Making Beth speak in a soft voice with carefully chosen words conveys the great compassion inside this character. The actress’s eyes suggest a gamut of emotions running through Beth as she takes in what her callers are saying. We can tell when she thinks somebody is blowing smoke, when the conversation makes her uncomfortable, and when her own issues are unknowingly touched upon by the stranger seeking help. This is truly a tour-de-force performance in which we get to know the protagonist by how she reacts to each phone call.

Understandably, The Listener won’t be for everyone. You have to be able to see the drama in body language, facial expressions, pregnant pauses, and word selection. If that sort of interior vibe is your cup of tea, then Tessa Thompson’s work in this movie is unmissable.

out of four

The Listener is unrated but contains adult language and mature thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan