Director Gillian Robespierre dazzled audiences with her 2014 debut film, Obvious Child, the most endearing rom-com dealing with abortion that you’ll ever come across (sorry Juno). With a career-making performance from the film’s lead, Jenny Slate, Obvious Child etched out a place on many best-of-year lists, and established Robespierre as a filmmaker on the rise. Robespierre is finally back with Landline, a coming-of-age dramedy set in the mid-nineties, which also features Slate. The question on everyone’s mind is whether Obvious Child captured lightning in a bottle, or if Robespierre is a filmmaker capable of delivering more cinematic gems.
Landline centers around sisters Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Jenny Slate), who couldn’t be more different. For one thing, there is a considerable age gap between them; Ali is a teenager who lives at home, while Dana is grown up and lives with her fiancée (Jay Duplass). Also, their personalities exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Dana is a pushover, while Ali doesn’t bite her tongue. It’s obvious that something’s not right with the marriage of their parents, Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco), and the tension is manifesting in their own lives. Ali is actively rebelling by going to all-night raves and doing drugs, while Dana starts questioning her own impending nuptials. After discovering that their dad may be cheating, the siblings start spending more time together, gaining perspective on the nature of love and relationships.
Romantic love is just one of love’s many phases, and it makes sense that we’re often ill-equipped to deal with the feeling’s emotional fallout. Love between two people exists in a state of flux, intensifying and fading with the passage of time. We’re bombarded with stories of fairy-tale romances, but few stories teach us how to nurture love over a lifetime. Robespierre paints a vivid picture of a family struggling to keep their footing as love’s shaky landscapes shifts beneath their feet. It’s a weighty concept to explore, but Robespierre balances the film with enough humour to avoid the trappings of typical indie movie navel-gazing.
What stands out about Landline is how real and fleshed out the characters feel. These family members are so weighed-down by their own emotional baggage that they’re incapable of addressing each other’s needs. They’re the type of family that sits down for a meal where everyone speaks but no one hears what’s being said. Dana, Ali, Alan, and Pat often go toe-to-toe in the painful ways that real families do; they’ve lived together long enough to know everyone else’s weak spots, and they prick and jab at them like emotional bulls-eyes. Not getting along isn’t the same as not caring, and Robespierre makes sure that we feel the family’s deep love for one another, even when it sits beneath a thorny layer.
I wanted to know more about each character’s story, but you can only pack so much into 97-minutes. Ali and Dana’s journeys are front and center, but Alan and Pat never feel like they’re left sitting on the back burner. Falco and Turturro are first-class actors who make the most of every second they’re on the screen. Both can speak volumes without saying a word, and their presence hangs over the film even when they’re not featured in a scene.
Robespierre tasks Quinn with the film’s toughest challenge: playing Ali. In less capable hands Ali would easily become the movie’s weakest link; it’s difficult to portray the defiant “why is everyone on my case?” teenager without coming off as obnoxious or feeling one-dimensional. Quinn shows just enough of the character’s vulnerability to help the audience empathize with her rather than resent her. Ali is smart and a smart-ass, and puts her big, beautiful brain to good use delivering some of Landline‘s most devastating one-liners.
Slate’s performance in Obvious Child was a revelation, and in Landline she proves that her captivating screen presence was no fluke. It’s fascinating watching Slate’s approach to inhabiting the role of Dana. Although Dana is well into adulthood and engaged to be married, Landline is also her coming of age story. Dana transforms from an emotionally stunted pushover to a spunky rebel, and then…we’ll, I won’t spoil where she ends up. Slate radiates charm every second she’s on screen, and proves she’s not just a comedian masquerading as an actor.
It’s almost impossible for a filmmaker to live up to such an auspicious debut, but Landline proves that Obvious Child was no happy accident. Landline is the more complex film of the two, and shows Robespierre’s growth as a filmmaker, offering a stronger all-around cast and an ambitious script that tackles more complicated themes. It captures the bittersweet journey of people actualizing their own wants and needs at the expense of the people around them, and the magic on display here is how Robespierre examines these intricate family dynamics through a comedic lens without robbing her story of emotional weight. The result is a cinematic slice of family life that works just as well as a comedy as it does as a coming-of-age tale. Landline is one of my favourite films of the summer, and a strong contender for my year-end list.