In 2014, writer/director Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate won fans and acclaim with their fearlessly unconventional rom-com Obvious Child. Robespierre’s directorial debut starred the former Saturday Night Live cast member as a struggling stand-up comic who is nursing a new romance as she weighs her options about an unplanned pregnancy. Dealing frankly and humorously with modern romance and even abortion, Obvious Child defined both Robespierre and Slate as talents to watch. Now, the pair reunite for the former’s sophomore effort, the bitingly funny family-dramedy Landline.
Set in the mid-1990s, Landline follows the Manhattan-based Jacobs family, whose lives are thrown into upheaval when the wild child/teen daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) uncovers erotic poetry penned by her father (John Turturro). Sure, that’s an unsettling discovery, having to face that your parents have sex lives, and not just to create you. But Ali’s convinced these sexy sonnets and hot haikus are proof of an extramarital affair. So, she turns to her anxiety-ridden and affianced sister Dana (Slate), who is experiencing infidelity issues of her own. Rattled, Dana uproots from the apartment she shares with her boring beau Ben (Jay Duplass), and moves back into her childhood bedroom. Meanwhile, their mother (Edie Falco) is cracking under the pressure of her daughter’s simultaneous rebellions of sex, drugs, and drunken dancing.
Far from repressed, this “modern” family openly discusses sex and jokes about drug use. But some topics are too tough to broach, like the betrayal of someone you love and trusted. Exploring this narrative is an incredible cast alive with warmth and character, even as they’re cursing each other out. The foursome clicks with a complicated chemistry of affection and resentment. As working mom Pat, Falco is smiling but stern. Her strength radiant, and her vulnerability heartbreaking. Opposite her, Turturro tucks away his renowned intensity, inviting the audience to wonder if this dearly doofy dad could possibly cheat. But as Landline begins to dig into this frustrated copywriter’s unrealized ambitions of playwriting, a bittersweet picture comes into focus.
Despite Slate’s easy affability, Falco’s bravado, and Turturro’s tenderness, the real standout here is relative newcomer Quinn. The edgy ingenue sparks with a dizzying mix of optimism and cynicism, the dark brew that makes teen angst a real mind-fuck. With a baby face and sharp eyes, Quinn wins our hearts and makes us worry as she recklessly runs away from home, picks bitter fights with her parents, and dabbles in a dodgy drug deal while dressed like a California raisin. But as melodramatic as those moments might sound, Landline keeps the tone light with verve and loads of nostalgia for a simpler time of voicemail boxes, and no cell phones.
Mini-backpacks bop between the sisters’ shoulder blades. Dana rebels with an eyebrow piercing, and unleashes her inner desire to rage while enjoying the listening station at a CD store. High-waisted jeans unflatteringly encase hips, and make us wonder how anyone got laid in the ’90s. And Ali expresses her overwhelming feelings by making her sister a mixtape. Not a Spotify list. Not even a mixed CD. At times it seems these touches may be laid on a bit thick. But with every outdated piece of technology, and every regrettable fashion choice, there’s a bit of delightful wistfulness for a time that feels all at once just like yesterday, and ages ago.