There’s a short scene in Gillian Robespierre’s Landline that may as well be science fiction for younger audiences, in which protagonist Dana (Jenny Slate) stops at a phone booth (!) on her lunch break, pops in a quarter, and checks the messages on her voicemail remotely (!!). The film is a period piece, set in the mid-1990s, but it doesn’t got for the lazy laughs of easy kitsch; there’s a reference or two, and a party scene that deftly encapsulates the pretensions of the era’s neo-hippies. But you really get the feeling that Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm were primarily drawn to a point in recent history when we didn’t have everyone in our lives and every piece of information literally at our fingertips, because so much of their movie is about communication, and miscommunication.
They tell the story of a boho Manhattan family: an adult daughter (Slate), teenager Ali (the exceptional Abby Quinn), a failed playwright/ad man father (John Turturro), and a power broker mother (Edie Falco). The parents are in a rough patch, illustrated in an unusual way: you see right away how much this couple annoys each other, yet you can also see a glimmer of what they once had. But that’s not enough anymore; late one night, the younger daughter finds a bunch of love poems by her father on his computer, and the film posits (correctly) that this is about the grossest discovery she could make about him, up to and including sex Polaroids.
Ali goes to her older sister, whose response is tricky – because she’s recently cheated on her long-suffering fiancé (Jay Duplass) with an old boyfriend. The dynamic is delicious; Dana has to weakly defend, or at least sympathize, with someone who is unfaithful. “He’s emotionally cheating on Mom,” Ali announces, dramatically. “You watch too much Oprah,” Dana responds.
Robespierre and Slate had an indie breakout back in 2014 with Obvious Child, and one of the many things Landline seems designed for is showing off all the things Slate can do (similar to the function the forthcoming The Incredible Jessica James performs for Jessica Williams). She’s funny, obviously, and often in an offhanded, seemingly improvisational way; she and Duplass project the giggling intimacy of longtime bedmates, while Slate and Quinn nicely capture the dynamic of sisters who are separated by a few years, but getting emotionally closer in age. But Slate also has a couple of barn-burner dramatic scenes, in which she’s open, vulnerable, and painfully real. And she nails every damn one of ‘em.
In fact, the entire cast gets a chance to shine. Falco is sheer perfection, her dry wit and unflappable takes (particularly to her teen daughter’s blooming vulgarity) a source of endless entertainment, but when she tells her husband, “You broke the rules,” the pain is real, and it stings. And Turturro is equally impressive, putting across the frustrations and contradictions of his nice-guy adulterer, trying not to think about what he’s risking; the things happening on his face as he watches his daughters walk away from the car (after picking them up from jail, no less) are indescribable.
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. The narrative isn’t exactly groundbreaking (certainly not in the way abortion rom-com Child was), but it’s filled with moments of ineffable truth – the utter formality of first-time teen sex, the palpable tension of parental disagreements (“God forbid she dislikes you for like five seconds”), the weirdness of talking about your partner to someone you’re not quite cheating with, yet.
The film plays this stuff straight, which is a risk; the 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 truth and tenderness, and of people trying desperately to make things right, to do what they believe is expected of them, and not quite pulling it off. She gives them the room to be full, complicated, flawed characters, and she can be both critical and sympathetic of them. After all, as Slate tells her dad, “I’m flailing, okay? I’m just trying to figure out if the life I picked for myself is the life I want.” He responds, wisely, “You may never figure that out,” not to be cute, but to be honest. The whole movie runs on that same principle.
“Landline” is out Friday in limited release.