Landline Is a Message From the Lost World of the 1990s

2 minute read

There’s no such thing as the perfect family. But when you’re a teenager, any family seems better than the one you’ve got. That’s the territory mined by writer-director Gillian Robespierre and co-writer Elisabeth Holm in Landline, set in New York City in the mid-1990s, when people still used pay phones and bought music at Tower Records. This was also before smartphones gave us a handy excuse to stop looking each other in the eye. Although where there’s a will, there’s a way: perpetually irritable teenager Ali (Abby Quinn) can’t stand her mother, hardworking, distracted Pat (Edie Falco). She also grows to despise her father Alan (John Turturro), an advertising copywriter who’d rather be a playwright, when she discovers a cache of love poems that suggest he’s having an affair. She confides in her older sister Dana (Jenny Slate), who’s suffering from some relationship trauma of her own and temporarily moves back to the family apartment to sort things out. Ali’s prickliness drives the two young women apart, but they broker an uneasy peace when they weigh a tough question: Should they tell Pat about Alan’s infidelity?

Robespierre directed the tender and extraordinary 2014 comedy Obvious Child (also co-written with Holm, also starring Slate), and while this picture doesn’t have the same quiet-earthquake impact, it’s just as emotionally open and just as funny. At one point Ali storms out of the house angrily, and Pat, in that deadpan-comic tone parents use when they send their kids out to face wolves (or just the world), worries aloud that she’ll probably get mugged. Alan assures her that that won’t happen: “She’s too scary.” You laugh, but it hurts a little too. It’s clear Ali is no fun to live with, and Robespierre and Holm redirect our sympathies from one family member to another gracefully. The actors are all terrific: as Ali, Quinn has a radiant wildcat sweetness–there’s fragility behind all that hissing. And Slate, with her marvelous, helium-tinged voice, is a pure pleasure to watch. At one point she responds to a friend’s outrageous dating tale with a classic spit-take. Somehow she makes it both elegant and hilarious.

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