Beware '90s Cool-Guy Hair in Gillian Robespierre’s ‘Landline’

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Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn in 'Landline.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Landline should come with a warning for those old enough to remember the mid-’90s. “Watch at your own risk: may cause bouts of uncontrollable nostalgia, extreme hairstyle regret and wistful memories of CD shopping.”

As a follow-up to Robespierre’s 2014 directorial debut Obvious Child, Landline — opening in theaters July 28 — keeps a star (Jenny Slate) and a location (New York City), but broadens its focus from an individual experience to a familial one.

Abby Quinn, Jenny Slate, and John Turturro in 'Landline.'
Abby Quinn, Jenny Slate, and John Turturro in 'Landline.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Slate plays Dana, the straight-laced 20-something older sister to snarky high school senior Ali (Abby Quinn), whose parents Pat and Alan (the always wonderful Edie Falco and John Turturro) have an upper-middle-class Manhattan marriage of mutual disregard.

The film opens on Labor Day 1995 to the sounds of Dana and her fiance Ben (Jay Duplass) trying to live out someone’s fantasy of having sex in the woods (most likely Ben’s). “Are you okay?” he asks, “Because I kind a feel like you’re not into it.” (She isn’t, but claims otherwise.)

Such failures in communication are a dime a dozen in Landline. Characters who think they’re on the same page discover they’ve been operating under vastly different assumptions. Equally and opposite, characters who think they’re good at hiding something invariably find out their skills lie elsewhere.

Jenny Slate and Finn Wittrock in 'Landline.'
Jenny Slate and Finn Wittrock in 'Landline.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

If we reductively identify Obvious Child as “romcom about abortion,” Landline is a “dramedy about infidelity.” When Ali discovers a floppy disk filled with her father’s ardent love poems about a woman he calls “C,” the disillusioned teenager turns amateur detective, printing the texts out on the family’s dot-matrix printer for further study.


Dana joins this P.I. effort, but only after a confession of her own: an extra-monogamous moment with college friend Nate (Finn Wittrock, with ’90s cool-guy hair) that has her questioning her relationship with Ben. “I just think maybe this is a sign that there’s somebody else that I’m supposed to be that is trying to get out of me,” Dana says. Ali tries to wrap her head around this latest revelation: “We’re just, in like, a family of cheaters.”

Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn in 'Landline.'
Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn in 'Landline.' (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

In the hands of another filmmaker, this might be where things turn dark. But instead of dwelling on the looming implosion of a nuclear family, Robespierre and screenplay co-writer Elisabeth Holm focus on the misadventures of Slate and Quinn's sisterly odd couple. As much as they might sometimes irritate each other (Ali, of course, gets all the best comeback lines), theirs might be the only truly honest relationship in the entire film.

The infidelities of upper-middle-class Manhattanites aren’t a taboo subject by any stretch of the imagination. And those seeking the same thrill Obvious Child provided -- of witnessing an untold but deeply important women’s experience on the big screen -- won’t find anything comparable in Landline. But it's short-sighted to dismiss the film as a nostalgic throwback to the days when pay phones still existed (and cost just 25 cents). Landline’s temporal location is more than just fun set dressing, it’s key to the core of the movie: even when things were once technologically simpler, relationships -- familial and romantic -- have always been complicated, and rife with miscommunication.

'Landline' opens July 28 in San Francisco, Berkeley and Palo Alto, and Aug. 4 in San Jose. For more information, click here.