Gillian Robespierre’s Landline is about people who are afraid of their own emotions. Here’s a film where people will actively avoid experiencing sadness or contrition by ignoring the moving world around them, diluting their anxiety with rococo distractions. Who knows if there’s a bottom to this feeling, where whatever’s eating away at you may very well engulf you entirely. Sure, there are catalogues of films that deal with this reckoning of privileged ennui, particularly those set within NYC, but there’s a gentle wisdom to Landline that demands consideration.
Much like Robespierre’s debut film Obvious Child, Landline possesses a distinct tonal singularity even as it churns past familiar plot points. It’s divided into a triptych of narratives involving three disaffected women. Dana (Jenny Slate), her younger sister Ali (Abby Quinn), and their mother Pat (Edie Falco) navigate through a particularly difficult New York autumn during the mid-nineties. In Dana, we find a woman dealing with the internal emptiness of a comforting, if not boring, engagement. Ali, a teenager in high school, meanwhile discovers that her father (John Turturro) may be having an affair. This complicates the household’s tremulous ecosystem, where Pat and Ali are perpetually at odds. In their mutually exclusive yet similar crises, Ali and Dana bond over their shared grief.
Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm eventually center the narrative on Ali and Dana’s relationship. It’s a wise move, particularly given that Quinn and Slate are such effervescent figures together. Elsewhere, the nineties milieu is an intriguing if not especially fully realized aesthetic. Beyond the obvious cosmetic purpose it serves – the film has a particularly humorous Hilary Clinton power suit joke – the decision to shift the temporal setting to the nineties is done primarily to avoid particular technological obstacles that a narrative of this sort would need to confront. Yet it all comes across as fairly inconsequential, where infidelity is uncovered not in going through a smart phone but discovering the contents of a floppy disk. Not that the film doesn’t have particular moments that work within its temporal setting: a sequence involving Slate listening to music in a record store possesses unexpected warmth for the period while avoiding nostalgic navel-gazing traps. Yet this moment is one among few, in what so frequently feels like a half-measure toward specificity.
If Landline lacks contextual specificity, then it makes up for it with an emotional clarity that is far beyond your typical modern American indie comedy. This is where Robespierre and Holm separate themselves from the ubiquity of say, Judd Apatow’s sensibility, in that Landline’s emotionally-driven performances are steeped within a more progressive polemic on sexuality. This is primarily realized by Slate and Turturro’s performances, as their characters’ infidelities stem from a crisis of sexual commitment that acknowledges concerns of matrimonial monogamy with more complexity than any Apatow production I can recall.
And speaking of Slate: the interim between Obvious Child and Landline has been a particularly unflattering period for the actress, whose vibrancy has been cloaked behind playing anthropomorphic cartoon characters. In working with Robespierre, the two have established a unique cadence in developing rich and dynamic characters that resist simplistic classification. Slate’s performance here would be called a revelation had that same description not applied to her work in Obvious Child. In a crescendo moment toward the end of the film, Slate submits her finest work to date in a scene that encapsulates all the anxieties and preoccupations that Landline traverses, in a moment not so much of catharsis but of empathy. It’s a moment that connects with earlier in the film, where Robespierre and Holm ask of their characters to consider the life they lead and whether it’s what’s right for them. The answer, as it were, is a little complicated.