A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the movie is not for kids. It alludes to a child's sexual abuse in language and impressionistic, somewhat hectic visuals. Characters talk explicitly about sex (specifically, gay sexual activity and desire). An unhappy writer misses his boyfriend, then develops a friendship with a boy he never meets. Characters lie to one another, sometimes maliciously, sometimes out of seeming illness. A couple of arguments end in minor violence (pushing and shoving). Characters are depressed, physically ill, and mean to one another. Characters smoke cigarettes and drink.
What's the story?
Narrated by famous writer Gabriel (Robin Williams), THE NIGHT LISTENER opens on his late-night radio talk show, as he promises to "lay out the events exactly as I remember them." As he comes to question his memories, he also wonders about his motives for telling stories. When Gabriel's partner Jess (Bobby Cannavale) leaves him, he finds solace of sorts in a friendship with 14-year-old Pete. At first they connect through the boy's manuscript, which he has submitted to Gabriel's publisher friend Ashe (Joe Morton), a story focused on his sexual abuse by adults. Then they come to appreciate their shared loneliness and sense of humor. When Gabriel learns that Pete is also terminally ill, he wants to help, but the boy's adoptive guardian, a social worker named Donna (Toni Collette), seems inclined to keep them apart. When Jess suggests that Pete and Donna sound like the same person over the phone, Gabriel begins to worry he's been had, that the boy doesn't exist. At this point he launches into an elaborate effort to track him down.
Is it any good?
Initially clever and provocative, The Night Listener ends up seeming clumsy. A mystery story based on an Armistad Maupin novel, it's "inspired by true events," which means it's twice derived, based on a fictionalization of Maupin's own experiences. This makes for an intriguing focus on the artist's practice, as he makes up and also uses the lives of others; the film asks when this process turns selfish, and perhaps more importantly, self-deluding.
Tapping into recent public outrages over writers who lie (for instance, J.T. LeRoy and James Frey), the film's indictments are drearily unsubtle. Though the wonderful Sandra Oh, as Gabriel's accountant, provides welcome wit and level-headedness amid the hubbub, she's not on-screen nearly enough. She makes you realize that The Night Listener could have been sharper, and less dreary.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about artistic processes. How does Gabriel use his experiences to write his stories? How is his process different from or like Donna's lying? How do both characters use someone else's misfortune (illness, abuse) to gain attention for themselves? How can writing (and reading) also be a healthy, community-building process?
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