Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 25, 2024 6:00 pm 
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All the lonely people

So there's this beautiful woman of color, and all she has to do of an evening is take "helpline" calls in her little cordless headphone from lonely or sad or desperate or distracted people at her apartment, and all we have to do in this movie is listen to the conversations and see how soothingly and supportively she talks to the callers, seeming really interested, but not too much, not fake.

Except, of course, we don't have to listen to these conversations; it's just that this movie is asking us to. And let's say up front right off that some wont want to. Why would one stick to the end through all the ninety-plus minutes? Well, "Beth" (Tessa Thompson) is beautiful, as we said. And perhaps we are just curious about people, and each caller has a specific story. When the little "ding-ding" of another call comes, it announces a new little surprise, a new human experience. The screenplay by writer Alessandro Camon - never does the writing matter more than in a movie like this - does a good job of providing us with constant variety without seeming to strain for novelty or try shock or titillate us.

Now, usually call service/operator films have dramatic outcomes. A good recent example is Gustav Möller's 2017 Danish police emergency call drama The Guilty,, a "crackerjack feature debut," where the rookie cop station operator has to save someone in dire danger, finding the endangered caller's risky location and getting her rescued without ever leaving the police station. The Listener is free of The Guilty's restrictions. "Beth" gets to wear a blouse with cleavage, to let her beautiful hair down, and to walk around her cozily lighted apartment, and we get to watch her, while her movements gradually show how emotionally taxing these calls are for her. Her voice loses its perkiness and her greetings their cheeriness as the evening wears on.

This isn't that high-tension kind of call drama; it's actually rather languid. It meanders, and we meander with it. This is a movie to curl up to. Kristen Lopez is not wrong in her Tribeca review for The Wrap when she says The Listener "plays a lot like a podcast or even a radio drama."

"Beth" is restrained. That isn't her real name. It's the policy of the call-in service (in L.A.?) to use a pseudonym. Most callers just talk of this or that. Some have had traumas happen to them. Some are just lonely and bored. One is a hostile "incel" type misogynist. There are two kinds of criminals and a badly damaged vet. Some are facing dilemmas they can't or won't deal with. One of the latter is Chris (Bobby Soto), a cop, who witnessed a police killing where the killer was cleared of responsibility, but he knows it was unjustified. It's a double bind: if he talks, his colleagues will consider him a traitor, and if he doesn't he carries guilt by association. The ante is upped for "Beth" because the "N" word was used in the incident.

But here, as in nearly every case, the conversation just ends. It's late, after all. And some, most frustrating of all, never get started, before the caller hangs up.

One call is from a woman who is schizophrenic and refuses to take meds, or for that matter, talk to doctors. Sharon (Alia Shawkat) is crazy, but her obsessive paranoid way of connecting one thing to another makes "Beth" suggest she could make poetry out of it; and Sharon calls back at the end of the night with a poem she has written, which she reads and "Beth" finds awesome.

The last new call in the evening has a special resonance and sets itself off because the caller is unusually energetic and smart and has an English accent. Her name is Laura and the actress voicing her is none other than Rebecca Hall. This major call is from a fired sociology professor, just simultaneiously divorced, with no money and no friends, who is sure the world will end in flames and floods and whether in a hundred years or a thousand, she does not care. This woman is a piece of work - one can't help wondering why "Beth" doesn't hang up on a caller sometimes, including this one - either because the caller is too crazy, or too annoying, or unwilling to be helped, but then it's her job as the listener, to keep talking, even when the caller wants to hang up but she, "Beth," wants to provide more sympathy or encouragement. These conversations are like tennis rallies: we watch to see how long the ball keeps getting batted back across the net.

Laura is a caller who establishes a bond early on, because she knows about "Beth's" job here and asks her a lot of questions - reflecting her training as a sociologist, she says. For instance, Laura knows it's a "peer" function "Beth" plays here, sort of like a member of A.A. So that means "Beth" has a "deal", and Laura is the first caller to ask her what her "deal" is, her "secret." It's rather predictable, alas, but this nonetheless must be considered a climactic moment, because what we've been waiting for is the big reveal of who "Beth" is, our protagonist. It's still exciting because this is one of the first times there has been real give-and-take.

Laura gets talked out of suicide for tonight, the only moment when this plot point emerges. Not only that, though, but perhaps more importantly, "Beth" suggests to Laura that she might turn out to be good at this job herself. (And she is, after all, out of work, so maybe the suggestion isn't such a lame kind of bonding gesture as it might seem.)

And now we begin to get it: as A.A. members are drunks who talk other drunks into sobriety, late night helpline phone answering operators are made up of (formerly, or recovering) suicidal people who talk other suicidal people out of killing themselves, one night at a time. While this movie doesn't provide any of the sensational panicky, hyper-emotional moments of the phone genre, it delivers something more useful: an understanding of how these call services function and who works on them.

Tessa Thompson is attractive, appealing, and subtle in her performance. I found her manner a bit on the withholding and controlled side., but maybe that is how you have to be,l both to serve the caller and to save yourself, in such a job. "Beth" makes clear, by the way, that she doesn't do this job constantly and this is the last month of her current stint at it. What we also see of course is that just as this isn't a movie for everyone, this isn't a job for everyone either. But the veteran actor Steve Buscemi, who has been in so many classic films and great TV series, from "Mr. Pink" in Reservoir Dogs through "The Sopranos" and so much more, draws classy, well modulated performances from all his unseen actors, as well as from the one we see. But while one appreciates the restraint as part of the helpline job, the result is not as memorable as it ought to be, and the callers, though troubled, aren't in extremis enough

Alessandro Camon was an Oscar nominee for The Messenger, whose cast included Buscemi. That film's director, Oren Moverman, is one of The Listener's producers. It's been mentioned that this film, with its mostly voice-only cast, seems an obvious Covid shutdown project.

The Listener, 96 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 9, 2022, (Giornate degli Autori), also showing at Vienna, Thessaloniki, Stockholm and Tribeca. US release by Vertical Mar. 29, 2024.
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