The Caller speaks, and Beth listens. Her earpiece buzzes, and then a call comes in, which could last for a few minutes or for a longer while. She ends the call and repeats the process again and again. The Listener, directed by Steve Buscemi and starring Tessa Thompson in the lead role, takes the simple premise of listening and talking, and turns it into an intense, thrilling experience.
Tessa Thompson plays Beth, a volunteer at a crisis helpline operating during the nighttime. The film wastes no time in showing how emotionally challenging Beth’s job can get, as her work takes a toll on her after she takes a call from a formerly incarcerated man on her very first shift, which hints this is her final month in the job. As the movie progresses, the audience is immersed in Beth’s world, where she talks to different callers and tries her best to help them.
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The Listener is a captivating character study of a helpline volunteer.
Tessa Thompson in “The Listener.”
Credit: Hantz Motion Pictures
Throughout The Listener, Beth handles calls from different people with diverse backgrounds and problems, such as a young homeless woman worried about her abusive boyfriend, and a caller who admits to deepfaking revenge porn. We only hear their voices, and thus are locked onto Beth, played remarkably by Tessa Thompson. Her performance is engaging, creating tension between her spoken words and her physical expressions. Her voice is friendly and kind, though her body language sometimes reveals her concern. As calls pass by, Beth’s facade gradually cracks and her hidden emotions slip through, creating a mesmerizing portrayal of a complex character.
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The Listener‘s director Steve Buscemi skillfully links individual calls together, creating a seamless experience that leaves the audience invested in Beth’s character. The film’s sound design is also notable, where the audience can imagine the different callers’ backgrounds and their surroundings. Although the film is entirely shot from Beth’s perspective, Buscemi uses the helpline’s calls and the sound of Beth’s surroundings to give the audience a bigger picture of the story’s setting, creating a unique cinematic experience.
While the deluge of callers and their struggles can tire the audience out, Tessa Thompson’s performance keeps the film’s pace and tone grounded and realistic. The movie’s intimate scale sometimes works against it, particularly in the climactic scene where it begins to feel a bit too moralistic and contrived. Nevertheless, The Listener is a moving, fascinating exploration of isolation that captivates as much as it exhausts.
The Listener was premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival.