Given that Landline is so firmly grounded in the 1990s – so firmly that there are Blockbuster, DustBuster, and skipping CD references – it’s sort of a nice coincidence that the film reminded me of a plotline on a 1998 episode of the television show Friends. In the episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS,” Phoebe and Joey have an ongoing argument about whether there is such a thing as a selfless good deed. The way Joey keeps turning the positive feelings of a kind act into its own self-interested reward was, to me, reminiscent of the way Landline explores relationships and what people put into and get out of them. Landline isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a more interesting examination of the way we invest connections we have than just about anything you’ll see in theaters this season.
Anchored by writer/director Gillian Robespierre, writer Elisabeth Holm, and star Jenny Slate, a trio who were also involved in 2014 indie-favorite Obvious Child, Landline is a family dramedy set in New York City in the mid-1990s. Slate’s Dana is having second thoughts about her engagement to Ben (Jay Duplass), her teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn) is drifting into a life of clubs and drugs instead of taking the SAT and extracurricular route her parents (Edie Falco and John Turturro) would prefer. Their mismatched efforts to curb her behavior just highlights the tension in their own marriage.
It’s common in movies to see a deep dive into one relationship – familial or romantic – as opposed to a juxtaposition of a few different types. By taking a look at how a small group of people relate to each other and a couple of outsiders, Robespierre and Holm allow for consideration not just of how people react differently, but also of how different kinds of relationships vary. There’s a spectrum of choice for example: theoretically, you have 100 percent freedom to opt into or out of a romantic relationship, but almost no freedom to opt out of a relationship with your parents if you’re a minor. Those dynamics matter when Dana and Ali are trying to move away from their relationships with a partner and parents (respectively) and towards a relationship with each other. In some ways their relationships was genetically assigned, but in other ways they still have space to define it, and watching them explore that space is the most interesting and enjoyable part of the movie.
As interesting as it is to watch the two sisters develop a relationship with one another, independent of their parents, audiences do so with the knowledge that it could go very wrong. Ali is rightly described at one point early in the film as reckless, and Dana in particular seeks out the thing she wants in all different kinds of relationships, without regard for what it does to or for other people. She’s not malicious, but she’s moderately selfish. She doesn’t talk with her fiancé about her relationship concerns, for example, before just trying a variety of things to make herself feel better about them. And while she does seem to be genuinely enjoying her new-found connection with her sister, she also seems to be enjoying her rediscovered connection with the kind of young, irresponsible lifestyle that allows her to ignore the consequences of some of her very adult decisions. Slate is a great fit for the role in that she brings a good-natured charm that reminds you that Dana may be human but she’s not really a bad person, which becomes important to the extent that she eventually needs redemption.
Pat (Edie Falco), Dana and Ali’s mother, sits near the other end of the spectrum of selfishness in that she maybe didn’t ask for quite enough of the people around her. She’s not perfect by any means, and there’s just a hint of self-self-rightous martyrdom about her. But her character is a reminder that no matter how good someone’s intentions might be, relationships are complicated, and it doesn’t always pay to paint yourself as the selfless one. It probably comes as no surprise that Falco is fantastic in her role here, but as someone who never watched The Sopranos or Nurse Jackie, I’m not yet immune to her ability to find a balance between tough and vulnerable that doesn’t feel manufactured.
Landline isn’t terribly long – about an hour and a half – but it is dynamic, and that’s what works about it. When something is relationship-based, you need to be able to see how the characters change, and the relationships evolve. Landline is a snapshot of a small group of peoples’ interactions, but it’s an interesting one with a talented cast. Plus, as fictional stories set in the 90s go, it probably has more nuance than “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS.”