“Listen to Me” (citywide) is not a typical youth film. It takes us to a sun-drenched, ultra-modern Southern California college campus, but instead of the usual jocks and bikini-clad women we meet a bunch of bright, squeaky-clean super-achievers. They are all members of the small institution’s high-ranking debating team, coached by hard-driving professor Charlie Nichols (Roy Scheider). “Listen to Me” is admirably off-beat, quite engaging, but its finish is disturbing in ways writer-director Douglas Day Stewart had surely not intended.
In a sense “Listen to Me” seems an old-fashioned movie: the film’s young people actually have other things on their minds besides, but not excluding, sex. It’s very contemporary, however, in that it shows us persuasively that college can be a real pressure cooker for anyone with any degree of seriousness, especially in the sharply competitive arena of debate. Making it even more timely is Nichols’ announcement that the big subject for the national intercollegiate competition will be abortion.
Here’s where writer-director Douglas Day Stewart gets into trouble with his anti-abortion bias. Indeed, instead of making the case against abortion, his film serves to show how much emotion anti-abortionists can stir up without addressing the realities that the pro-choicers outline, not to mention the matter of women’s rights. Stewart seems to realize this, when after the climactic debate before members of the Supreme Court, the one woman (not called Sandra Day O’Connor) on the bench reveals she believes in upholding Roe vs. Wade but gives the anti-abortionists her vote in the debate because of their skill. The bothersome implication here is that in debate what counts is effectiveness of presentation--which in this instance is shameless grandstanding--rather than the substance of the argument.
If the conclusion of “Listen to Me,” with all the thorny questions it raises in a highly loaded context, overshadows all that has gone before, the getting-there is involving. The film’s young stars couldn’t be more likable. They are also so articulate that they wouldn’t be believable if they weren’t playing gifted debaters.
Kirk Cameron’s Tucker and Jami Gertz’s Monica are freshman on scholarships. He is an Oklahoma farm boy; she is from a blue-collar Chicago family. In contrast, Tucker’s roommate, Garson (Tim Quill), is a rich and powerful senator’s kid who seems to have everything but is miserable because he is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. There is a great deal of contrivance and even more manipulation in “Listen to Me,” but Garson’s anguish rings true. Also life-like are the flaws in the character of Charlie Nichols, to whom Scheider brings energy as well as qualities of ruthlessness and regretfulness.
So much of “Listen to Me” is so far more stirring and thought-provoking than most Hollywood films of any genre that it’s a shame that Stewart, who received an Oscar nomination for his script for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” didn’t take a step back and let us decide for ourselves how we should feel about the issues it raises.