The Listener is a sobering, potentially triggering film magnified by Tessa Thompson’s beautiful performance: Tribeca Film Festival Review

The fifth directorial effort from actor Steve Buscemi, and his first since 2007’s Interview, The Listener is an intensely quiet film, one that hones a sobering nature that can’t help but speak to its prime pandemic nature.

COVID-19 is never specifically stated across the film’s sensitive 96 minutes, but the loneliness in the story’s set-up and the desperation and cries for help heard in the conversations on screen feel very much as if it has captured a moment in time where we all existed in a bubble of uncertainty and anxiety.

The reason we are privy to such tragic conversation is due to The Listener, well, the title kind of sells itself at this point, focusing its minutes on Beth (Tessa Thompson, beautifully committed as the only physical presence on screen), a helpline volunteer who, in an unspecified West Coast US city, is tending to the late night callers in need of an ear in some capacity.

Similar to other phone-based dramas like Locke and The Guilty, The Listener lives and dies off its physical performer, and Thompson expresses a poise as she psychologically calculates the means she needs in order to tend to each caller.  Logan Marshall-Green, Alia Shawkat, Margaret Cho and Casey Wilson are several of the familiar names lending their vocal talents to the numerous calls Beth answers over the course of the evening – which range from an ex-con’s anxiety about entering a store having to wear a face mask (“The last time I did it, I got shot”), an incel kid whose hate for women (and himself) is deteriorating his own interactions with people in the world, and a young homeless person who’s trapped in an abusive relationship.  It’s the inclusion of Rebecca Hall as a woman contemplating suicide with an unnerving examination on the act itself that truly rattles the film’s personality and the character of Beth in the process.  Here, for the first time, Beth’s own pain is acknowledged, and only through the confrontation of someone’s death does she come alive.

Beth, whilst seemingly affected by each of these calls, is clearly within her wheelhouse regardless when navigating her answers to their particular mood, and though Thompson’s performance remains steady and engaging, audiences unversed in such deliberate, intricate storytelling may be tested by The Listener‘s limited structure.  You would be ultimately doing yourself a disservice though to dismiss such a film off the back of its “unexciting” temperament.  Yes, after years of lockdowns and struggling with our own mental health, a film like The Listener could prove triggering, but there’s a sense of beautiful comfort in Alessandro Camon’s script expressing those doubts and fears we all had with a physically manifested answer of sorts.


The Listener is screening as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, running between June 7th – 18th, 2021.  For more information head to the official Tribeca page.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.