Obvious Child, the first collaborative feature from director Gillian Robespierre & actor/comedian Jenny Slate, was a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing bomb-thrower of a film. Robespierre snuck a realistic, formally honest drama on addiction & abortion into American theaters under the guise of a safe, by-the-books romcom. Slate’s persona in the film as an aggressively juvenile stand-up comedian made the experience even more sharply pointed, as it at least vaguely mirrored her own life & art. Unfortunately, I cannot report that their reunion for an Obvious Child follow-up is anywhere near that striking in concept. Detailing the lives of a family in crisis in the mid-1990s, Landline sidesteps the deeply personal politics of Obvious Child to tell a much more familiar, universal story. Slate’s natural persona is still allowed to inform her character, but it’s also diluted by a larger ensemble, including turns from indie scene notables John Tuturro, Jay Duplass, and (MVP) Edie Falco. There’s no real hook to Landline the way Obvious Child’s “the abortion romcom” elevator pitch is immediately distinctive, but Slate & Robespierre still manage to extend the fiercely honest sensibilities of their first collaboration into this less thematically confrontational territory.
A frustrated NYC teen (Abby Quinn) struggles with her idealistic sense of home life & self-identity when two dual acts of adultery disrupt her familial structure. Just when she discovers her playwright father (Tuturro) is likely cheating on her eternally stressed mother (Falco), her adult sister (Slate) also begins an affair behind the back of her fiancée (Duplass). The two sisters & their mother form a solid trinity of female perspectives that dominate this narrative, but the heart of the film lies mostly in the teen’s struggle to negotiate the balance between the ideal of honesty and the fact that the truth could destroy someone. She acts out in frustration, turning to recreational drug use & delinquency to enact a sense of control and starting petty name-calling bouts with both her her sister & mother. These insult trades can range from the harmless (“tattle tale,” “irritant”) to the bitterly harsh (“Fuck you, cunt!”), but order is gradually restored to their dynamic as the two romantic affairs naturally work themselves out. Huge, life-changing mistakes are made impulsively & with fervor and the teen at the center of the storm is petrified of repeating earlier generations’ follies at the expense of people she loves. (Honestly, introducing this family to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson would be super beneficial in dispelling her fantasies about the private, romantic lives of East Coast intellectuals). Ultimately, though, familial bonds prove stronger than short-term resentments and everyone emerges a stronger, more forgiving person on the other end.
The most striking choice for Landline, stylistically, is its story’s 1995 setting, which thankfully extends beyond nostalgia markers like floppy discs & Oprah to touch on the historical drug addiction issues & limited forms of communication that shaped the era. The tagline “1995 – When people were hard to reach” is much tidier than the movie’s treatment of internal, familial conflicts of communication & honesty, but at least points to how the setting was integral to tapping into the film’s themes. The 1990s timeframe also allows for a wildly varied soundtrack ranging from Steve Winwood’s embarassing “Higher Love” to The Breeders’ delicate delight “Drivin’ on 9.” You can tell Robespierre employs the same cinematographer as she did for Obvious Child (Chris Teague), since interior spaces in both films visually share a kind of lamp lit intimacy, even if Landline is less thematically aggressive in its treatment of adultery as Obvious Child is in its politically casual look at abortion. There are moments in Landline that register as emotional devastation (“I’m flailing,”) and others that aim for broad, dark comedy (a Jewish character receiving head during a weepy drama about Nazis). The temporal setting & Robespierre’s tendency towards brutal honesty set the stage for both ends of that divide to hit with full impact, although they’re contained in a much more familiar, well-worn story than the one told in her debut.