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The telephone sex worker is an easy target in movies, a vulnerable woman who is, when the wrong caller dials in, at the mercy of their whims. Such is the case in Withheld, a new short film that explores that horror when a young woman gets a series of calls from someone who wants more than she expects.
Stephanie (Lizzie Mounter) is on the phone with a man (Tom Bonington) who is looking for a conversation about sex, something she does for a living. He seems interested but aggressive and before the deed is done, hangs up. It happens again but this time, he is far darker and demands she call him sir. She complies but he is not convinced she is doing what she says, that she is not naked and not even using her real name. She hangs up but when he calls back, he has some new threats, ones that not only put her at risk, it makes it appear he can see what she is doing. Panicked, she does what she is told.
Written and directed by James Bowsher, Withheld is a 15-minute short film with one setting and two actors filmed entirely in the dark of a late evening. We learn much about Stephanie and how she came to do what she does, something the caller seem more than interested in, his deep and menacing voice something that feels vested in his threats. Bowsher has an intriguing idea and utilizes a few of the standard “the call is coming from inside the house” tropes we’ve all become so attuned to in generating some solid tension, with effective direction and a moody score.
Mounter is on screen for nearly the entire film and has a believable lived-in quality about her, playing a seasoned phone sex worker who is good at her job but hardly a participate in it, knowing well the words and sounds that gets her paid. It’s a dirty job, and we get a sense of its wear on her. Bowsher gets us hooked early with the sex but we grow engaged by the character as the minutes pass because she seems authentic. The film is mostly about a single conversation on the phone and is meant to put Stephanie in what seems like an inescapable situation, even as we aren’t clear what the caller’s intention is.
It all builds up to an interesting if not entirely predictable end, but satisfying nonetheless. Despite the trappings of the genre, the film is supremely well-acted with Mounter more than convincing throughout, carrying the film entirely on her shoulders. While many larger films have pushed this theme to full-length in other girl-trapped-in-a-house thrillers, Withheld’s brief running time works best in delivering the goods, making it a clever and well-made experience.
Movie description: Withheld is a 2017 short film is a psychological thriller about the power of performance between a phone sex worker and an unseen caller.
Director(s): James Bowsher
Actor(s): Tom Bonington, Lizzie Mounter
Genre: Thriller, Short