Long Time Listener, First Time Caller

By Nora Kirkpatrick | Comedy
A sexually repressed woman calls a late-night radio show.

Nan is a sexually repressed housewife living in a small town in the middle of the Californian desert. She spends her days cleaning and wiling away the hours at her home, and her evenings at dinner with her husband, who seems more interested in talking back to game shows than talking to his wife.

But when she’s cleaning out the room of her recently deceased mother-in-law Rosie, she discovers a mysterious talk show on Rosie’s old transistor radio. Filled with questions of her own — on her marriage, existence and life’s purpose in the face of a vast universe — she calls in, and the answer sets off a chain of thoughts that will change her life.

Written and directed by Nora Kirkpatrick, this charming and eccentric existential dramedy tackles the big questions in life, as a bored housewife seeks meaning underneath the stultifying weight of domestic routine, only to discover herself. What distinguishes the story from other narratives in the same vein is its storytelling’s relative economy and minimalism, as well as a gently oddball visual evocation of dustbin desert Americana.

With an earthy, warm yet faded color palette and striking production design, Nan exists in a world that feels out-of-time, like a pocket of the country forgotten by modernity, including its pace, progress and ideas. Wide master shots are emphasized, both remarkable to look at and a stark visual representation of how marginal of a presence that Nan feels in this world.

This sense of existential suspension is bolstered by the dissatisfying scenes of domestic life with Nan’s husband. Nan’s husband isn’t necessarily mean; he’s just not quite there. The storytelling establishes these dynamics with few scenes and lines of dialogue, though what discussion is there leans on the dry, absurdist side. The approach is less tightly connected psychological immersion and more a series of related photographs of key moments, tied together by character, mood and whimsy.

The film’s first half sets up mood and atmosphere, but it gains momentum when Nan tunes in to the station and show that Rosie listened to, with its strangely compelling sense of folksy wisdom and cosmic authority. The answers and advice she gets about her marital ambivalence are both hilariously retro (“lingerie”) and gnomically cosmic.

Watching actor Breeda Wool as Nan attempt to follow up on this advice is both a fine study in subtle physical comedy and a beautiful portrayal of a woman coming alive to her own buried wishes and yearnings. Her attempts to reach her distant husband set off a strange set of small yet weirdly resonant events, including one that reminds her of the grief she still holds for her mother-in-law’s passing — and an opportunity for strange grace to work itself in her life.

Beguiling, unconventional and poetic, “Long Time Listener, First Time Caller” is bookended by two riffs on a uniquely mesmerizing image, one whose resonance transforms with Nan’s shift in character, as well as the film’s compelling harmonies of story, image and ideas. Tenuous but intriguing connections are made for Nan as Rosie’s final “gift” to her arrives, giving Nan the courage of her convictions and the meaning of freedom. Is it fate? Coincidence? Or does it even matter? Whatever it is, it captures our yearning for meaning in an often absurd world and asks us to look more closely for the hidden connections in our own lives.

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