Watching conversations can be riveting. Many a film has made two people talking the focus of its interests. Now, when the conversation is only seen from one side, that’s a bit more challenging. A movie like The Guilty has worked around that by leaning into the thriller aspects of its story. Here, with The Listener, it’s just about listening. As such, it’s one of the quieter flicks at the Tribeca Film Festival, almost to the point of being static.
The Listener is almost entirely about watching its lead, well…listen. That’s a big ask, and while it’s not without its rewards, I ultimately found it more of a slog than it should have been. The acting is on point, the direction is focused, it just simply felt a little bit thinner than you’d like from something this heavy.
Beth (Tessa Thompson) works as a helpline volunteer taking calls each night from all sorts of people. Some are just lonely, while others are going through any number of crises. The past year or so has increased the number of calls, as well as the intensity of their problems. feeling lonely, broken, hopeless. Over the last year the tide has become a tsunami. On this night, she’s going about her job, milling about her home, trying to make sure that she doesn’t lose anyone or make anything worse.
As Beth goes through her shift, she talks to creeps, gentle souls, and people in desperate need of help. Throughout it all, she listens. Eventually, Beth’s own story begins to come out, helping to explain why she does what she does. We’re there with her, watching her at work, listening to her listen.
Tessa Thompson is excellent here, which is needed since it’s literally just her on screen. She makes observation an art form here, never seeming like she’s acting. It’s moving and compelling work. You’d like to see her up to more, but with what she’s being asked to do, this is impeccable work. Thompson has rarely been better. The voices she speaks to include those from Margaret Cho, Rebecca Hall, Jamie Hector, Logan Marshall-Green, Alia Shawkat, Ricky Velez, and more.
Director Steve Buscemi leans on Thompson and the script from Alessandro Camon. One serves him better than the other. She’s giving her all, yet the screenplay Camon wrote just doesn’t go to enough interesting places. Buscemi does his best to avoid too much repetition, though the monotony of the job is in part the point, but it still becomes a bit of a chore by the end.
The Listener is not going to be for everyone. Credit to Buscemi for doing something this small and intimate. Of course full credit to Thompson for some stirring work. This is just a very tiny flick and something that asks a bit more than it offers back. It’s not a Tribeca highlight for me, but it’s not one that you can easily dismiss, either.