Review: The Listener Connects With Callers, Talks Them Off Their Metaphorical Ledges

The Listener is something like a combination of a filmed, one-woman stage play and an acting exercise, directed by Steve Buscemi and written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alessandro Camon (The Messenger).  The film stars Tessa Thompson, giving a measured and carefully considered performance as Beth, a helpline volunteer, fielding calls from all manner of lonely, broken and hopeless people. It’s not exactly a suicide hotline, but with her soothing voice and empathetic personality, Beth logs on in the middle of every night and takes these calls from all over the country, attempting to evaluate their needs and respond accordingly. The process and the way her mind works are fascinating to watch, but it becomes clear after a night of this that Beth understands these people because she used to be one of them.

Although Thompson is the only on-screen actor we see, we get an array of voices playing her clients. Logan Marshall-Green, Margaret Cho, Casey Wilson, Blu del Barrio, Alia Shawkat, and Derek Cecil are among the callers; some come on as threatening, deviant, petty, or unstable, and with each one, Beth attempts to walk them through their issues to determine whether she needs to pass them on to a professional or a specialist or simply talk them down off their metaphoric ledge and go to sleep. It’s clear the responsibility is all-consuming, but Beth is exceptional at her job and even allows her own story to come to light when if it seems like it will help the person she’s talking to.

If a film like this can have a climax, it comes with a call from a woman named Laure (played by Thompson’s Passing director, Rebecca Hall), who is the only caller in the film who even vaguely seems suicidal, almost defiantly so. And it’s their conversation that goes on the longest and sheds the most light on Beth’s road to taking on this work. The stakes seem higher with this call, as we listen to Beth find inroads to connecting with someone who likely knows all of her tricks. Needless to say, some of the callers are more interesting than others, some seem somewhat cliche, as far troubled members of American society go, but a select few hit me hard and seemed eerily familiar. Despite some of Beth’s haunting confessions, by the end of The Listener, I felt personally comforted by Thompson, and I can think of worse things.

The film is now playing in theaters and streaming via VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.