Sundance 2017: Landline, by David Bax
Two features in, it continues to be difficult to talk about director Gillian Robespierre without comparing her to Woody Allen. Her new film Landline may trade Allen’s Upper West Side for Downtown but the Jewish middle class milieu and the autumnal New York City setting are more than enough to draw parallels. There’s even a Zelig reference thrown in for good measure. Robespierre, though, is following Allen’s career at an increased pace. She’s already onto her Hannah and Her Sisters, a more ambitious, less funny follow-up to Obvious Child that may not quite live up to its predecessor but further cements its director’s status as a talent with things to say.
The setting is September and October of 1995 and Robespierre’s cast of characters are a family made up of returning star Jenny Slate as the grown, engaged older daughter Dana, Abby Quinn in an astounding and well-rounded performance as younger daughter and high school senior Ali, Edie Falco as political strategist mother Pat and John Turturro as copywriter and aspiring playwright father Alan. In various ways, though most of them revolve around some sort of infidelity, these two months are a period of emotional tumult thinly disguised under bourgeois decorum.
Robespierre’s choice to set her story in the 1990s doesn’t appear to add much of import with the exception of repeatedly seeing First Lady Hillary Clinton on the television. Mostly it seems to be a reason to drop references like “Must-See TV” and have characters drink Zima (the latter requires the biggest suspension of disbelief; Zima’s biggest claim to fame is the fact that no one drank it). On the plus side, it does give her a good excuse to coat the soundtrack with great tunes from the likes of PJ Harvey and The Breeders.
Landline continues in the vein of Obvious Child as a showcase for Robespierre’s eye and ear for naturalism. Even the most heightened conversations are sprung from relatable sources like sex and alcohol. And thank the heavens that Landline is the supremely rare movie in which people’s work and school schedules actually have an impact on the narrative.
If Landline is more diffuse in its power than Robespierre’s first feature, that’s because her scope has expanded. Luckily, her willing to engage in human messiness has too. This is a movie that aims to grapple honestly with the concept of forgiveness, treating it not as a catharsis but as a process.