The Phone Call (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Phone Call (2014)

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Heather works at a crisis center where those who are depressed and suicidal call in for help and guidance.  At work she receives a call from the inconsolable Stan, who may have already taken the steps to end the life she works to protect.  Mat Kirby directs The Phone Call from a screenplay written by him and James Lucas, starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent.

The Phone Call is currently available for digital purchase at Amazon.

Please stay on the line with meI've been recently intrigued by the excerpts and reactions from a book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  The premise is that we've been so focused on treating aging and the end of life experience as another medical problem which can be rendered moot so long as the right advances in treatment and application are in play.  This may be something of a foolish hope, because ultimately we have limited time on this earth and no feasible increase in medical technology is going to save everyone.  So the last days of people's lives are filled with constant tests and checking of vitals when the overall situation is hopeless - all that time and energy to save or extend someone's life when we could be using it to make someone more comfortable.

The Oscar-winning short film The Phone Call is a cousin to this idea, imagining an encounter between a lonely crisis center volunteer and an old man who has called in one too many times before deciding this is the moment he has chosen to die.  As someone who has done some hospice and crisis center volunteer work, this is both a routine and nightmare scenario.  How do you react to someone so inconsolable that no matter what you choose to say they are going to die?  The Phone Call answers this question with breathtaking compassion, showing one human doing her best to save and then comfort a man who has chosen to go into the dark than weather another day without his beloved.

The Phone Call is a mere 22 minutes long, but director Mat Kirby knows this is precisely the amount of time needed to tell this story and wastes no frames in saying exactly what he needs to.  It helps that he is joined by Sally Hawkins, that amazing actress whose performance in Happy Go Lucky is one of the few treasures of the last decade, and is able to suggest a life of loneliness with just a few glances.  Watch her cold face as she reads her book without pleasure on the far corner of a bus stop, only to have that stony façade melt into longing when she sees a coworker she has a crush on sitting in the opposite end of their office.  So near, but so far, as the saying goes, and Hawkins' skill at expression will serve her well in the coming fifteen minutes of conversation.

The persistent ticking of time, be it from the wall clock or the watch Heather can no longer stand to wear, weighs heavily on each moment of The Phone Call.

The persistent ticking of time, be it from the wall clock or the watch Heather can no longer stand to wear, weighs heavily on each moment of The Phone Call.

Kirby's control over the emotional flow of those next fifteen minutes is nothing short of astounding.  When Heather (Hawkins) receives a call from Stan (Jim Broadbent) she is so patient with him in finding out his name and why he's calling.  The camera rotates around Heather in these moments, catching different glances of her expressions as she uses her body and voice to convince Stan to open up.  The transition from comfort to fear is a jarring one when Stan reveals he's taken a large bottle of pills to end it all.  What follows is a color sequence of cold shots and sound design which would make Ingmar Bergman proud.

Gone are the transitional shots between Heather's mood, instead the camera cuts between perfectly centered shots of her growing worry and a clock ticking away in the background.  The tension comes from a battle she can only win with the right kind of words as the soundtrack is gradually replaced with the ticking of the clock.  This man is at the end of his life, time doesn't matter so much to him as it does to the woman who wants to save his life, and Heather's worry induces a mild panic in the audience.

But if The Phone Call were merely a short dramatic thriller - can Heather get the information to stop him in time? - it would be well-crafted but unmemorable.  The turning point comes from a simple question from Stan, "Will you please just be here with me?"  It's funny how life pivots around simple suggestions but Kirby recognizes this is the moment where the tension of life needs to slow down, the ticking is gradually replaced with music as Heather and Stan discuss a shared love of music, and she stays with him right until he begins to slip away.  It's not a devastating moment because she failed to save his life, but is so affecting because the subjective world of Heather and Stan goes from death and the constant reminder of time to a quiet symphony of music and tearful smiles.  The Phone Call empathizes with their decisions, and shows the comfort it brings to them both.

In the acceptance speech at the Oscars, the creative team urged the watchers to help people who are feeling suicidal while saluting the work of these crisis volunteers.  What The Phone Call shows is that there is no easy fix to the end of someone's life.   The best we can sometimes hope for is a compassionate voice on the other end who is willing to bear witness, to be a calm and steady voice as the lights slowly go out in the person's world.  Your life belongs to no one else and, while I certainly don't broadly advocate for suicide, I understand those trapped in fatal diseases with nothing left in their lives.  We need to save those we can, and comfort those we can't.  The Phone Call understands enough about mortality and pain to know the difference.

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Tail - The Phone CallThe Phone Call (2014)

Directed by Mat Kirby.
Screenplay written by Mat Kirby and James Lucas.
Starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent.

Posted by Andrew

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