SXSW Review: Operator

Score: B-

Director: Logan Kibens

Cast: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Nat Faxon

Running Time: 89 min

Rated: NR

One of the questions we often grapple with in these technology-saturated times is ‘how much is too much?’ At what point are we too dependent on technology? Operator, the first feature-length film from director Logan Kibens, attempts to answer that question as it relates to one couple: Joe and Emily.


Joe (Martin Starr) is a data-obsessed software designer prone to anxiety, reliant on his wife Emily (Mae Whitman) to keep him calm, which includes calling her covertly at her job as a hotel concierge so that she can reassure him. When his client at work demands a more empathetic customer service system voice, he realizes that Emily is the perfect candidate. But as Emily tries to juggle the voice work, her job at the hotel, and her dream of acting, Joe sinks deeper and deeper into a dependence on the new, always-available Emily voice system.


It’s easy to imagine someone as insecure and controlling as Joe getting addicted to this system that emulates his wife without any of her flaws. At the beginning of the film, it’s clear that Joe’s reliance on Emily has resulted in disregarding Emily’s personal needs and wants. She wants to quit the hotel when she gets the voice work, but Joe explains that won’t be possible. She’s ecstatic when she lands a spot with a group of Neo-Futurist actors/playwrights, but Joe forces her to be late when she has to stay and soothe him after a panic attack.


Starr and Whitman both give powerhouse performances. Starr is the right mix of awkward and endearing. While he stays relatively reserved, he nails a key scene in which Joe realizes just how much he’s pushed Emily away. It’s great to see Whitman in a lead role like this with plenty to chew on. She switches easily between Emily’s inherent want to please and comfort and her growing frustration that she never receives any such comfort.


Set in Chicago, Kiben’s first feature film exemplifies her attention to detail. Joe is always in cool tones in static surroundings while Emily is much more kinetic, running around on stage bathed in warm light and wearing golden colors. The static camerawork of Joe’s office is jarring next to the whirling camerawork in the tight theater. Joe’s daily run along Chicago’s lakefront always ends at an unassuming pier and always culminates with a symmetrical shot of Joe at the end of the pier surrounded by water, a serene nod to his love of routine and control.


Even though the ending feels a little too sweet and optimistic to be real, Operator is a riveting look at the role technology plays in our lives – especially when it comes to those who already struggle with human interaction and anxiety. It’s a reminder that no matter how much data we analyze, nothing can completely protect us from those pesky emotions.


About Katie Anaya

Katie Anaya

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