PARK CITY, UTAH: Co-writer/director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate had one of Sundance 2014’s biggest hits with Obvious Child, and their reunion film, Landline, does what you hope a sophomore feature will do: it expands the canvas without softening the voice. It’s not as funny as Obvious Child, nor does it try to be; Robespierre is working with more serious themes and tones this time around, and proves just as adroit painting with those colors. If Obvious Child was her Annie Hall, this is her Hannah and Her Sisters.
She’s dealing with a similar kind of New York boho family, with an adult daughter (Slate), a teenager (the crackerjack Abby Quinn), a failed playwright/ad man father (John Turturro), and a power broker mother (Edie Falco). The parents are in a rough patch, and the script (by Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm) does something really tricky: you see right away how much the couple annoys each other, but they also still convey a glimmer of what they once had. Late one night, the younger daughter finds a bunch of love poems by her father, quickly realizes they were not for her mother, and tries to decide what to do with that information.
Landline plays the familial tension straight, which is a risk; this material could’ve easily been molded into a laugh-a-minute Idiot Plot comedy. But there’s real heartbreak in this story, and Robespierre isn’t afraid of it. Her movie is full of moments that ring with endless truth and tenderness, and of scenes where people try desperately to make things right, to do what they believe is expected of them, and can’t pull it off. She gives them the room to be full, complicated, flawed characters – or, as Slate puts it, “Just because I did one shitty thing doesn’t mean I do all shitty things.” This movie is wise, and witty, and wonderful.
“I really like you,” Boone tells Jessica, in a moment where he’s afraid he might lose her, and she’s nonplussed in return: “Yeah, Boone. Of course you do. Everyone does. I’m friggin’ dope!” It’s a good character moment, and also one that stands outside The Incredible Jessica James, because much of the audience will go in feeling the same way about Jessica Williams, the Daily Show fave who plays her. And those who come in cold will likely come out as converts. Jessica James isn’t much of a movie – it’s slight and underwritten, and even at 85 minutes, a lot of it feels like padding. But it does one, important thing well: it’s a totally serviceable “J-Willie is a movie star” demo reel.
She plays a Midwest escapee and Brooklyn playwright who we meet in the midst of a bad break-up that she’s trying to frame as a positive: “I’m going through a process right now. I’m standing in my own truth.” She talks like that a lot, in bold proclamations peppered with online-speak, but James C. Strouse’s script gradually reveals the insecurities under her bravura, and the self-doubts that threaten to wreck her poise.
She also has a nice little nervous romance with the shaggily charming Chris O’Dowd, and the two of them get such a good vibe going (their dialogue scenes spark affably, and they have a love scene that’s sweet and tender and funny AND sexy, all at once) that it’s easy to forgive the film its many flaws: the first-draft feel of the script, the many dream and fantasy sequences that don’t really play, the half-hearted subplots related to her day job. Frankly, it’s a pretty conventional story, and lucky to have such a unique star. But a star she is. She comes on like a hurricane, fast-talking, funny, and fierce, and the pure joy of her dancing on a rooftop in the opening credits is immeasurable. And she’s not dancing particularly well, but she means it. The movie sort of works the same way.
A protagonist marching into a wedding and macing the bride is a helluva way to start your movie, and that scene gets a big laugh right at the top of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West. But it also establishes the stakes of this pitch-black comedy, making it clear that our main character is not only not quite right, but fully capable of acting on it. This puts the viewer on edge; her scary intensity is always just under the surface, and much of the film consists of the filmmakers carefully setting up bowling pins, while we hold our breath waiting for her to start knocking them over.
Her name is Ingrid, and she’s played by Aubrey Plaza as a desperate, lonely soul whose iPhone never leaves her hand. The bride was a “friend” on Instagram, Ingrid’s platform of choice; the picture adroitly captures both the look and feel of social media, and the way it can take you over. She’s barely back in the world before discovering a new Insta star: Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a fab Venice Beach girl who Ingrid decides should be her best friend. So she goes to work.
Olsen is sublime, pulling off the neat trick of playing a vapid character without veering into caricature, while O’Shea Jackson Jr. – so good last year, playing father Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton – is pure charisma as Ingrid’s landlord and, when convenient, boyfriend. But this is Plaza’s show, and she is up for it, pivoting from bleary-eyed fervor to bang-up physical comedy, falling apart in one scene and provoking giggles in the next. It’s a troubling character, but she manages to invoke sympathy, without shying away from the real darkness at the center of the story. A movie like Ingrid is a balancing act of tones and styles, and yet, somehow, it barely wobbles.
So many independent movies are shot in gorgeous HD video that the dirt and grime of good old-fashioned 16mm film immediately grabs the eye, and the grainy New York images that open Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person pair nicely with the throwback soul that joyously fills the soundtrack. This is a contemporary story, but it feels set in the New York of old; the past is present in its look and feel, and the spaces where it’s set. It concerns multiple characters, not all of them connected or related – except that they share this particular world, and move to its tempo. And the writing and playing is so shambling and affable (there’s a real They All Laughed flavor to it), we don’t mind how scattershot it seems. This is a patient filmmaker, trusting his work will find a patient audience.
One character, listing her many flaws, adds, “I also have trouble shutting up,” and that’s an apt description for most of the Defa’s people. He loves all these characters, and all of their damage, and his dialogue is both dryly funny and wonderfully musical; he likes to listen to people who like to hear themselves talk. Everything Tavi Gevinson’s jaded teen says is a monologue: long and searching, doubling back and rephrasing, because every choice of syntax must be precise. Isiah Whitlock’s little jags are bluesy and colorful. Bene Coopersmith speaks in arias of longing and emotion; he says of his love of music, “It’s a tender spot. It’s vulnerable.” But they’re all that way, about everything.
Defa cares deeply for all these misfits – there’s not really a villain in it anywhere – and by the end of the movie, so will you. It’s an odd, screwy little movie, and it doesn’t all work; occasionally the combination of absurdism and narrative aloofness renders its events slightly inscrutable. But that’s a small complaint. This is a real gem.
Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend during Sundance, so yes, I’ll be back tomorrow – with (pending any last-minute changes) mini-reviews for The Big Sick, Before I Fall, Mudbound, and The Hero.