Gather around, children, and let me tell you a tale of a time before smartphones and social media. Sure, there were home computers, but most people didn’t really know how to use them properly. People wasted their precious time physically writing on artifacts called paper and creating home budgeting spreadsheets by hand—even the sound of it gives me chills. Yet somehow we as society knew without actually knowing that we needed a place that made trolling and stalking and catfishing and generally being useless feasible; we just needed to wait a few more years for technology to catch up to our wants and desires. Welcome to the mid-1990s and the film Landline, director Gillian Robespierre’s reunion (after the very funny and insightful Obvious Child) with actress Jenny Slate (Gifted), about a family adrift in Manhattan.
Also re-teaming with her Obvious Child writing partner Elisabeth Holm, Robespierre has created a family that knows each other so well that they can’t stand to be around one another. Slate’s Dana has actually moved in with her husband-to-be, Ben (Jay Duplass, most recently seen in Beatriz at Dinner), who is the perfect blend of sweet and alarmingly predictable—husband material but maybe not sex-fantasy worthy. Dana’s high school-aged sister Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn) is the family’s wild child, who has no qualms about lying directly to her mother Pat’s (Edie Falco) face. She doesn’t even have to lie to her far-too-forgiving father Alan (John Turturro), who often will appear to take Ali’s side when mother and daughter are fighting.
Trouble comes in two parts among these folks. Ali finds a file on her father’s computer of erotic love poems written for another woman, while Dana’s convictions about getting married are strained when she runs into an old flame (Finn Wittrock) and ends up sleeping with him. These extremes are only the symptoms of a far bigger problem in the family that seem to revolve around no one feeling satisfied, loved or emotionally supported. Beyond that, no one deals with these issues directly. Rather than admit her feelings and infidelity, Dana moves back in with her parents, claiming that Ali is having a tough time and needs her support, while Ali attempts to discover who this mysterious other woman in her father’s life might be. The truest flaw in this family is that everyone seems obvious to the fact that Pat is adrift in a sea of other people’s selfishness and is on the verge of melting down.
Despite the fact that every character in Landline is some degree of a narcissistic asshole, they each have their charm, especially Slate as Dana. The fact that in real life Slate was freshly out of her own marriage gives the character’s struggle to find meaning in her relationship with Ben a melancholy authenticity. She’s not gleefully, bad-girl cheating on him; she’s in genuine crisis after spending her entire life being the person who makes all of the right choices after weighing her options carefully.
There are a few moments where Landline becomes a caper film, with the sisters chasing down dad’s mistress and an unnecessary side-story involving Ali picking up drugs for a friend with an unknowing Dana tagging along. But the film’s best moments are with the women at home, finally making the time and effort to talk to each other and discovering how the others are in existential turmoil. Turturro’s Alan is a little less sympathetic, but we are also given clear examples of why he might have felt the need to turn to someone else who sees him clearly and listens convincingly, things Pat stopped doing long ago.
Robespierre wisely does not assign anyone in the movie the role of “bad guy”; a family like this can be their own worst enemy, but every member finds their own way to mess up and attempts to make up for it. There is no singular moment when tears are shed and all is forgiven. Life isn’t that easy and neither is the fate of these characters. We don’t exactly know how things will turn out for this family year from now (especially when the internet and cell phones rear their ugly heads), but they seem a bit more capable of coping and communicating when we leave them, for what that’s worth. The biggest hurdle an audience might have with Landline is finding a character with whom they can enter the story, but once we get there, it’s a mostly worthy ride to an uncertain but hopeful conclusion.