Editor’s Notes: Listening opens in limited theatrical release this Friday, September 11th.
There’s something about hard sci-fi films (in which the featured science is highly accurate or extensively researched) that never fails to intrigue me. There are giants like The Terminator or Blade Runner of course, but then there are ones like Primer, a personal favorite of mine, who know just where to draw the line to avoid bleeding into the fantasy genre. They feel grounded enough to more accessibly hold one’s interest, while commenting on real-world issues in a gritty, all-too-real way. Well, that, and it’s easier to empathize with someone who has a scientific breakthrough in a garage rather than a government facility. This is what makes Khalil Sullins’ directorial debut such a strikingly compelling surprise.
These three characters navigate the actions and reactions of technological advancements with ease, letting the audience do just the same.
Listening follows three incredibly smart grad students, David, Ryan, and Jordan, who gather in David’s garage to attempt at the invention of telepathy. They’ve each got their own motivations, David’s being an upcoming eviction and crumbling marriage, Ryan’s being memorial services for a relative, and Jordan’s being the pursuit of scientific discovery. Though, with tons of stolen supplies, not only is time running out, it’s all they’ve got standing between them and some serious consequences. Soon enough, they succeed, but after mistakes are made, their equipment is seized, and they themselves are taken to Washington DC, where a government lab and its officials have created their own applications for the students’ technology. The three of them are then forced to work in the lab, as signs begin to appear hinting at a more sinister intended purpose for it all.
You’ll be thinking about it afterward, no doubt, because the places Listening visits feel a bit too plausible to stay in the realm of fiction.
Khalil Sullins wrote this film in addition to directing it, and what he’s accomplished is a gripping hybrid of imaginative ideas and intrigue. His visual style is wonderfully well-realized, with distinctive looks to set locations apart and give them personalities. David’s garage is filmed with a handheld camera, his home with a static camera, and the lab with a robotic camera. But when telepathy is used, there’s a technique implemented that cuts to different angles from frame to frame, providing a stunning 3D-like experience. You can tell Sullins wanted to make something truly unique here, and his efforts definitely haven’t gone unnoticed.
The cast does very well too, with characters who get room to exercise their personalities. Thomas Stroppel as David is quiet, and seems to silently deal with situations instead of vocally, playing perfectly into a later arc of his in the film. Artie Ahr has an energy and memorable demeanor as Ryan that makes his dedication to furthering the lab’s plans more tragic, like he’s been a lost guy who finally feels he has a purpose. Amber Marie Bollinger as Jordan is a bit mysterious, but overturns the expectations other characters set for her, giving her an independent flair. These three characters navigate the actions and reactions of technological advancements with ease, letting the audience do just the same.
You’ll be thinking about it afterward, no doubt, because the places Listening visits feel a bit too plausible to stay in the realm of fiction. It’s refreshing takes on these kinds of stories that make for great indie films, and this one’s no exception.
It's easier to empathize with someone who has a scientific breakthrough in a garage rather than a government facility. This is what makes Khalil Sullins' directorial debut such a strikingly compelling surprise.