Gillian Robespierre delighted audiences with her debut feature, Obvious Child, in 2014. With her co-writer, Elizabeth Holm, and her star, Jenny Slate, she created a pro-choice comedy that was both sharp and controversial. Her sophomore feature, Landline has Robespierre teaming up with Slate and Holm again, but this time for a much safer picture. Landline follows the basic formula for an indie “dramedy”: angst ridden teenager who thinks no one understands her; lead character having second thoughts about marriage: check; dysfunctional family who doesn’t know how to communicate: check, check check. Despite the predictability, Landline isn’t without its charm and makes for a pleasant ride down nostalgia lane.
The year is 1995: the era of dot matrix printers, Blockbuster, and Mad About You. In her small Manhattan bubble, Dana (Jenny Slate) is considered the “good girl” of the family. She has a great job as an editor at Paper Magazine and is engaged to the vanilla yet stable Ben (Jay Duplass). On the contrary, her younger sister, Ali (Abby Quinn) is considered the problem child. She’s involved with the rave scene and spends time hooking up with her crush and doing drugs. Her parents (Alan Turturro and Edie Falco) are exhausted from their own problems and trying to good cop-bad cop with their daughter.
When Ali turns on her computer (with a special zoom-in on the floppy disk), she finds her father’s erotic poetry to a woman who’s simply referred to as “C.” Determined to out their father’s affair, Ali and Dana play detective while also becoming closer in the process.
Landline is less structured than Obvious Child and focuses more on the family as a whole rather than a single character. There is minimal risk in Robespierre’s story, restraining herself from diving deep into the conflicts that she creates. Every character has their own personal obstacle to overcome, and they achieve it without many messy results.
The story may be about the father having an affair, but it’s not the focus. Robespierre and Holm take time exploring sisterhood and female sexuality. While investigating her father’s affair, Dana starts one of her own with her old college hookup (Finn Wittrock), but the film doesn’t fault her for her decision; it illustrates the messiness of life in general and how we get caught up in the moment.
Slate is a gem and needs more roles, but her dramatic acting needs some work. It’s not clear whether it was her high-pitched voice or the material she was working with, but it was hard not to laugh at the serious moments ( it’s not clear whether we were to supposed to laugh at her yelling at her boyfriend to say the word “pussy”). Newcomer Quinn shines as the troubled Ali and seems like the only character who would be scarred by the film’s events (even though she repeatedly says that she doesn’t care). Both Quinn and Slate are believable as sisters, letting their significant differences fuel their chemistry. Their antics may grate the audience at times, but they are part of the film’s message: you never really know someone until you braid their hair.
Though the 90’s nostalgia is a bit overbearing, it helps convey Robespierre and Holm’s overall theme: that even without cell phones or screens to take our attention, we still lack communication, especially when secrets start to fester. However, Landline never quite finds its emotional footing. As a result, it makes for a generic drama/comedy hybrid that will be forgotten the next day.