Gillian Robespierre’s latest film Landline concerns itself with the murky family dynamics that keep most therapists gainfully employed. She’s no stranger to tough subjects though; Robespierre’s first film Obvious Child, regrettably dubbed an “abortion comedy” (really?), tackled complicated topics with humor and depth. The issues in Landline aren’t nearly as politically charged, but rather span the emotional gamut from teenage rebellion, marital infidelity, sibling relationships, and commitment phobia. The film presents these issues in an entertaining way while you are watching, but precious little sticks around long enough to render any real reflection after the credits roll.
Dana (Jenny Slate) is getting married to Ben (Jay Duplass) and while she pays lip service to the idea of marriage, she’s really only trying to convince herself that this is indeed the life she wants. Meanwhile, her sister Ali (Abby Quin) is in open rebellion at home sassing their parents Pat (Edie Falco) and Alan (John Turturro) and making questionable but not too surprising decisions about sex and drugs. It’s clear from the start that something is amiss between Pat and Alan, something that goes deeper than dealing with a pain in the ass teen. When Ali finds out about a possible source for the strife, Dana uses the upheaval as an excuse to move back home for awhile in an attempt to smooth things over. In reality, Dana does little to nothing to help anything in the house, instead just using the situation to escape her own problems.
What makes Landline interesting is the different character relationships, or connections (if you want to rope in the greater “landline” theme of this film) that are explored in the film. Dana and Ali, Ali and Pat, Pat and Alan, Alan and Dana, Dana and Ben, etc. Each relationship has a unique dynamic that separates it from the rest in the family. Yet despite all the possible couplings, it becomes apparent just how difficult it is to really get a hold on anyone. Robespierre does a good job weaving this theme throughout the film, of people attached to a tether but unable to connect. I would argue that we have just as many if not more problems connecting in a world without wires, but that’s a topic for other movies.
With all this talk of wires and cords, and given the film’s title, I’ll mention that Landline is set in 1995, and is considered a period piece. And while it’s hard to think that we are now far enough removed where the 90s are fodder for period films, I didn’t find the references and signposts to be a distraction which is a bit of a minority opinion. Perhaps our current obsession with nostalgia-laced media has dulled my faculties for such things, but I didn’t pay any mind to the so-called gimmicky inclusions that scream out, “It’s the 90s”! Yes, Ali finds incriminating evidence against her father on a floppy disc because a shoebox in a closet would be so middle century.
Really what saves Landline is its wonderful performances from a more subdued Jenny Slate and a very vulnerable and relatable Edie Falco. Her scenes with Turturro (always great to watch) are some of the best in the film. Slate’s chemistry with Abby Quin should also be noted. Ali is a little more of a nuanced teen than we sometimes get in films of this nature and her interactions with Slate’s Dana are hilarious and manage to do a lot of ground work in fleshing out the characters.
Robespierre is a filmmaker I want to see more of in the future and if she keeps working with Slate all the better. Obvious Child and Landline are solid films that entertain in the moment while exploring the more complicated issues in our lives. But some of these topics need to be pushed a little harder and deeper without necessarily coming up for air. It’s not pretty, but it’s life, and the truth in that is what makes satisfying conclusions and much more memorable films.
Landline opens today at the Ritz Five.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.