In 2014, Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate made Obvious Child, the film that put Robespierre on the map as a director and screenwriter, and arguably elevated Slate (then best known as the voice of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) from hipster darling to rising movie star. Slate played Donna Stern, a 20-something aspiring stand-up comic who finds herself pregnant after a drunken one-night stand with a very nice stranger named Max (Jake Lacy). The film’s title, cribbed from a Paul Simon song, was a bit of a wink: Donna was obviously still kind of a child, and the only thing obvious about the child she might have with Max was the fact that she was never going to have it: no guilty hand-wringing; no soul-searching about her options; no baby—no way, nohow.
Critics were quick to label the piece as a rom-com about abortion, and in a nutshell it was, although I would argue that the best parts of Obvious Childactually had little to do with Donna’s fledgling romance with Max or the termination of her pregnancy. Most compelling was the attention Robespierre (with cowriters Elisabeth Holm and Karen Maine) paid to Donna’s milieu: her best friends Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann) and Joey (Gabe Liedman), both full-fledged in a way the typical rom-com sidekick is not; Polly Draper as Donna’s officious, type A mother; Richard Kind as her very beta male, goofy, eccentric father. They gave Donna dimension. She was more than an actor in a love story; she was a friend, a daughter, a woman questioning her way of being in the world.
If Obvious Child offered a quick sketch of its broader universe, Landline,Robespierre, Holm, and Slate’s latest collaboration, is a carefully rendered study. The film concerns a family living in New York City in the middle part of the 1990s, each member locked in his or her own private battle against the weight of expectations. There’s Pat (Edie Falco), the high-powered mother who models herself on then–First Lady Hillary Clinton, who relishes taking charge at her job in city government but resents always having to play the same role at home. She’s married to Alan (John Turturro), a wannabe playwright who sells his soul as an advertising copywriter for off-brand consumer goods, and on the side, we quickly learn, may be engaged in a torrid affair. It’s Ali (Abby Quinn), their disaffected, eye-rolling 17-year-old daughter, who discovers her father’s painful erotic poetry (fantasies? or missives to a real lover?) on a floppy disk he leaves lying around. The discovery of his secret life further alienates Ali from her parents—she’s walking a thin line between normal teenage rebellion and criminal tendencies—but it also drives her closer to her older sister, Dana (Slate), a newly engaged goody-two-shoes who can’t shake the sinking feeling that she’s been living her life on autopilot. When we meet Dana, she’s got a nice Manhattan apartment, a job in the production department at Paper magazine, and an adorable yuppie fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass), with whom the ardor has already begun to fade (by midway through the film, their physical relationship amounts to two aborted attempts at intercourse and a dubiously sexy peeing incident). Soon enough she’s back in her childhood bedroom, ignoring Ben’s calls, playing hooky from work, getting ill-advised body piercings, and sneaking around with Nate (Finn Wittrock), a devilishly handsome former flame.
Landline foregrounds Dana’s romantic travails, but none of these characters get short shrift. It’s really the relationships among family members that are the heart of this film. The new movie shares some broad themes with Obvious Child: Life comes up at you fast; growing up is not a linear journey. “It’s like climbing back into the womb,” one of Ali’s friends tells her about snorting heroin, which they do at a rave, a decision that indirectly leads Ali to stumble onto her father’s porny ramblings. And that notion haunts Landline, so much of which takes place in this family’s womb-like postwar downtown Manhattan apartment, a warren of rooms with no sense of aperture onto the outside world. On the one hand, it’s cozy and cluttered; on the other, it’s suffocating. These characters—kids who want to grow up fast and grown-ups who wish they were less so—are all stuck at the same impasse: cling to the snug security of the nest, or venture out, an independent actor, into the scary unknown? That conundrum, the movie suggests, is as real at 50 as it is at 30 or at 17. It’s a question we’ll ask ourselves over and over again: as adolescents teetering on the precipice of adulthood, as husbands and wives, as parents.
Landline reminds me of other films: Dirty Dancing, in the way daughters must come to terms with their imperfect fathers, in the way that sisters who don’t see eye to eye are still sisters (not to mention that Slate—who plays Dana as a slightly spastic nerd, constantly emitting a symphony of snorts and burps and honks and snippets of inner monologue—is as endearingly awkward as a young Jennifer Grey). At their ugliest, these family dynamics are reminiscent of those in The Squid and the Whale; the difference is that unlike Noah Baumbach, Robespierre has great sympathy for her characters. “Just because I did one shitty thing doesn’t mean I do all shitty things,” Dana pleads to Ben. The same might be said of everyone in her family.
Speaking of The Squid and the Whale: There’s a certain type of New York movie where the setting is as much a character as the characters themselves. I feel that way about Baumbach’s film and its portrayal of 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn. I feel that way about Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. And I feel that way about Landline. Slate and Duplass are this movie’s most bankable actors—Quinn is good enough that she may soon join their ranks—but the real star may actually be 1990s New York. Every scrunchie, every record store world-music listening station, every manual car window, and every pay phone serves as a reminder that even the very recent past is a foreign country.
Will an extended bit about Helen Hunt’s camel toe on Mad About You be funny for generations to come? No, but it’s hilarious if you lived through it. Landline is a film about eternally relatable struggles, but it’s also a film that belongs precisely to this moment, in that it trades on the tension and nostalgia that those born in the waning moments of analog culture feel looking back from the vantage point of the digital present. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Dirty Dancing and The Squid and the Whale are both also period pieces fueled by wistfulness for a bygone era.) In one seminal scene, Ben, fully clothed, impulsively climbs into the bathtub with Dana. It’s a symbolic act—there’s something to be inferred about not throwing out the baby with the bathwater—but it’s also a gag. Ben’s spontaneity is unnerving until you put your finger on why: There’s no cell phone in the pocket of his medium-wash, relaxed-cut jeans. In the ’90s, spontaneous acts of bathing were not logistically problematic. It was, after all, the age of the landline.