Listen (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Sincere but heavy-handed

“Listen”, which received several minor awards including the Special Jury Prize of the Venice Horizons Award when it was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is a sincere but ultimately disappointing melodrama. Although it sincerely wants to draw out more attention to its social issues from us, the movie stumbles a lot more than once mainly due to its clumsy storytelling, and that is a shame considering the good efforts observed from its several main cast members.

At the beginning, the movie observes how things have been quite difficult for Bela (Lúcia Moniz) and Jota (Ruben Garcia), a Portuguese immigrant couple who have resided along with their three kids in a shabby residence located somewhere in London. Because Jota has still not received his delayed wage from his employer, there is not much money for buying food for the family, and Bela, who has also earned a bit while working as a housemaid, has no choice but to commit some shoplifting before beginning another hard day of hers.

In addition, all of Bela and Jota’s kids need some attention and care for each own reason. While their youngest kid is still a one-year-old baby, their oldest kid Diego (James Felner) has recently been quite ill, and their middle child Lu (Maisie Sly) has a congenital hearing disability. Although Lu also has a hearing aid, it does not work that well for some technical problem, and Bela becomes quite frustrated to learn later that she may buy the new hearing aid for Lu, which is certainly too expensive to buy for her at present.

And then something quite unexpected happens. When Bela comes to Lu’s special elementary school for taking Lu back to their home, Lu’s teacher notifies to Bela that there are some bruises on Lu’s back, and Bela are quite perplexed. She later asks Lu about the bruises, but Lu seems to have no idea on how the hell she got them, and Bela becomes panic because Lu’s teacher might already notify this case to a social services officer who is supposed to drop by Bela and her family’s house in the afternoon.

Her husband tries to calm her down and get things under control as much as possible around the time of the visit from the social services officer, but, of course, their world is turned upside down as soon as the social services officer knocks on the front door of their home. Accompanied with several police officers who would function as his enforcers, the social services officer flatly notifies to Bela that he is going to take away their kids for protection, and Bela and Jota are consequently separated from their dear kids.

What follows next is quite a nightmarish situation for not only Bela and Jota but also their kids. A few days later, Bela and Jota are finally allowed to see their kids again for a while, but they cannot freely interact with their kids just because of those unfair regulations, and that surely exasperates both Bela and Jota a lot. To make matters worse, their kids are bound to be sent away to foster parents regardless of whether they want or not, and it looks like there is nothing Bela and Jota can do for stopping this infuriating injustice from happening to them.

At least, there is someone willing to help them. That person is question is Ann Payne (Sophia Myles), and, as a former employee of the social services, she surely knows a lot about the system. While calmly reminding Bela and Jota of how the circumstance can be much worse if they are not very cautious, Payne does her best as providing Bela and Jota some helpful advices, and it seems possible that Bela and Jota will soon reunite with their kids even though they and their kids may not be allowed to live in England anymore.

It goes without saying that the movie apparently sides with Bela and her family, but the screenplay by director Ana Rocha de Sousa and her co-writers Paula Alvarez Vaccaro and Aaron Brookner often simplifies their desperate situation too much. While it willingly shows that Bela and Jota are not exactly model parents in case of their kids’ welfare, the screenplay does not show much interest in the opposing position of those social services officers, except frequently emphasizing how bad and lousy they are at their job. In addition, the movie often feels ham-fisted in its blatantly manipulative attempt to pull our heartstrings, and that distracting aspect is exemplified well by one certain sappy moment of big speech during the last act.

Anyway, Lúcia Moniz and several other main cast members in the film try their best in making their characters into believable human figures, though their efforts are frequently undermined by the movie itself. While never asking for pity or sympathy from us, Moniz is convincing as an exhausted but strong-willed woman who is simply trying to get back her kids, and she is complemented well by the relatively understated performance from Ruben Garcia. Sophia Myles acquits herself fairly well despite her bland thankless supporting role, and young performers Maisie Sly and James Felner are also solid in their small but substantial parts.

On the whole, “Listen” is rather dissatisfying due to its glaringly flawed screenplay, and I was all the more disappointed as reflecting more on how its story and characters could be more engaging than what I observed during its rather short running time (73 minutes). Yes, it surely has its heart in the right place, but it merely resorts to blatant melodrama without much nuance or complexity for its social issues, and I only came to leave the screening room without much impression in the end.

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