It’s Fall of 1995. A Jewish Italian family in Manhattan faces discord.
That’s kind of it, in terms of Landline’s hook. Gillian Robespierre’s latest lacks the advantage of an easy logline like that of her debut feature, Obvious Child. That film was easy to describe: “It’s the abortion rom-com,” everyone said. “You know – it’s that cute movie about abortion.”
But really, Obvious Child was never about abortion, or just about that. It was about a woman in her 20s figuring shit out. It was about her friendships and her career and her relationship with her parents. It was about her learning to let herself fall for a kind, normal guy who treats her well.
Landline and Obvious Child have more in common than their filmmaker and lead actress, though not on the surface: they’re both heartfelt, quietly funny films, stories that are both intimate and honest. While Obvious Child makes a statement simply by virtue of being a movie about abortion – in 2014, hell, in 2017, that’s somehow still a statement – Landline’s only mission is to tell a small, good story about characters you will care about and recognize. And, really, that’s plenty.
Jenny Slate plays Dana, the tightly wound older sister to Ali (Abby Quinn), an alarmingly grave, casually rebellious teenager who’s easily ten to twenty times cooler than her big sister. She sneaks out to raves and downsizes her parents and, okay, does heroin, but only once, and she just snorts it. It’s not a big deal, actually. Landline barely turns this plotline into an after-school special, which is a rather refreshing approach to heroin.
Dana and Ali have spent most of their lives at odds, but when Ali learns that their dad (John Turturro) is cheating on their mom (Edie Falco), the two sisters form an increasingly friendly alliance. It’s a well-timed distraction for Dana, who’s cheating on her nice but not terribly exciting fiancé (Jay Duplass) with a slickster she knew in college (Finn Wittrock). Dana’s flailing, feeling wrong in her relationship and her job. “I’m just wondering if the life I picked for myself is the one that I want, and I don’t even know if I’m allowed to ask that question.”
Jenny Slate’s wonderful in the film, warm and funny, at once uptight and fun, filled with longing. But you already knew that, because Jenny Slate is wonderful. Edie Falco and John Turturro are both terrific as Dana and Ali’s unhappy parents, of course, because Edie Falco and John Turturro are uniformly terrific actors. But here’s something you don’t know: Abby Quinn is a find. She seems to have this wisdom, this depth that doesn’t jive with her young age. She’s just cool, extremely cool, cool enough to make you root for the teenager with the bad attitude above everyone else in the film. And her chemistry with Slate is perfect. The relationship between Dana and Ali is the heart of Landline, a beautiful, true thing that makes everything else, even the ‘90s nostalgia that colors every frame of the film, feel secondary.
Landline is, essentially, ‘90s porn, but it’s very tasteful and effective porn. Robespierre gets everything just right: the clothes, the shoes, even the underwear, the music, the movies, the references – they’re all perfectly, authentically ‘90s, and in a sort of subtle, offbeat way that goes beyond the obvious “I Love The ‘90s” stuff. Ali wears a brown corduroy jacket I promise you I purchased from Delia’s in junior high. She and Dana dress as California Raisins for Halloween, just like my mom did. Everyone’s shoes are terrible. Dana dances to world music in the aisle of a CD store and pierces her eyebrow. The weed culture is insufferable. It’s the ‘90s, all right.
Of course, there’s the question of why Landline is set in the ‘90s, but the answer feels manifest, even if it isn’t actually true. This feels like Robespierre’s life, a snapshot of her family at a certain time in its history. Who knows if that’s actually the case, but the fact that Landline feels so authentic, and that the family at its center feels so much like a real family, that it nearly reads as autobiographical is to its credit. That sort of easy, genuine storytelling is a statement in its own right. This might be a small story, but it’s not a slight one.