Landline, Gillian Robespierre’s long-awaited follow-up to her impressive debut, Obvious Child, begins with both a bang and a whimper. It is Labor Day weekend 1995, and Dana (Jenny Slate) and her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) are going at it in the woods near her parents’ summer cabin.
As is the case with pretty much any scenario involving both the great outdoors and exposed genitals, the experience is less steamy than it is a painful comedy of errors, complete with eight-legged intruders. Ben is trying to make the most of it for both of them, but Dana just isn’t into it, and the poison ivy–related fallout is not the only reason that she is starting to get itchy in the relationship. Ben may be sweet, but lately he seems more excited by Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs than talking dirty in bed. Soon she begins asking herself that perennial post-college query, “Is that all that there is?”—before slowly pulling away from him in favor of questionable life choices and a renewed sense of adventure.
If this sounds like it has all of the makings of every indie movie and prestige TV dramedy made in the last 15 years, especially those featuring youngish adults afraid of growing up and frequently involving Duplass himself or his younger brother, you would not be totally off base. With its hip, late-’80s and early-’90s soundtrack (10,000 Maniacs, Crystal Waters, PJ Harvey, Steve Winwood), a story centered around a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family, and more than one scene in which characters dance out their feelings, it certainly has that made-for-Sundance feel. (It did, in fact, premiere at Sundance earlier this year.) But even if you’ve grown weary of such tropes, you shouldn’t be wary of Landline, which unfairly runs the risk of getting lost among this summer’s sea of summer blockbusters and other, more buzzed about indie rom-coms. A uniformly excellent cast and some genuinely moving moments make it easy to fall for, especially if you’re a fan of Obvious Child’s returning star, Jenny Slate.
Dana and Ben’s troubled relationship is only one of several in Landline. Dana’s parents, public-policy worker Pat and advertising copywriter/aspiring playwright Alan (the always brilliant Edie Falco and John Turturro, respectively), also seem to be in a rut, simply going through the motions of a marriage without any of the warmth and electricity they once shared. On top of that, they’re struggling with parenting their younger teenage daughter Ali (newcomer Abby Quinn), a too-cool club kid whose transparent lies about her whereabouts and only passing interest in school leave them exasperated. When Ali returns home late one morning after a drug-fueled evening, she stumbles upon a floppy disk containing her dad’s collection of erotic poems referring to a mysterious woman identified only as “C.” Mortified, she becomes convinced that Alan is cheating on Pat and soon enlists Dana to help confirm her suspicions.
As in her previous collaboration with Robespierre, Slate is disarmingly delightful, slowly unveiling a new side to Dana and coaxing laughs out of lines that should by all rights be throwaways. Her performance is imbued with just the right amount of her distinctive physical tics —an out-of-nowhere burp-giggle here, a giggle-snort there—but she’s also wholly convincing in more painful and private moments. When she looks at herself in the bathroom mirror after she’s tried out cheating on her own beloved, a complete emotional arc is displayed on her face in just a few flickering facial expressions: shock, then disappointment, and finally, a flash of pure giddiness. And because she’s played by Slate, it’s easy to find yourself forgiving Dana when you might not otherwise, even when she ghosts on her own husband-to-be and fails to return his phone calls for weeks, and even though we (like her) know it’s hurtful.
Meanwhile, Abby Quinn is a small revelation, giving what could have been a tiresome, all-too-familiar character (the disaffected teen) a crackling intensity reminiscent of Alia Shawkat’s Maeby in Arrested Development. While Ali is not as absurd as that sitcom character, both young women share a knack for penetrating insights and a contempt for the façades put up by the adults around them, and Quinn layers her portrayal with just the right amounts of defiance, disappointment, and begrudging (but totally heartfelt) affection for her family.
To some, Landline may read as slight, particularly when examined in relation to the groundbreaking depiction of abortion that distinguished Robespierre’s previous rom-com. But while it may not have the headline-grabbing hook of Obvious Child, it does deftly handle such equally important subjects as poor emotional communication, unhappy relationships, and sisterhood. And as a lightly nostalgic ode to a particular place and time, Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm’s film can be subtly wonderful, particularly in its quintessential New York City moments involving odd and nosy background characters. As with NYC itself, you may think you’ve seen Landline before, but it still finds a way to surprise you.