Sex happens in the shower, love happens in the bath. Among its other virtues, Gillian Robespierre’s “Landline” is the rare movie that appreciates the difference between the pleasure of standing in the water and the satisfaction of soaking in it — the difference between trying someone on for size and swishing around in their dirt until your skin prunes and the water runs cold. Almost everything that a second feature should be, the film is bigger, richer, shaggier, and more satisfying than Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” though obviously a product of the same irreverent imagination. It’s that most elusive of indie dramedies: An honestly told story about the messiness of human relationships.
Set in the fall of 1995, a magical time when people kept all of their secrets on floppy discs and Donald Trump was still just a punchline, “Landline” unfolds like a less caustic version of “The Squid and the Whale,” albeit one fueled by a raw female energy and graced with the vocabulary of a sexually frustrated sailor. The Jacobs family, a foursome of upper-middle-class Manhattanites (remember when such a thing existed?), is beginning to suffer from stress fractures that are more immediately felt than seen.
Dana (Robespierre muse Jenny Slate) is a graphic designer in her early 30s who’s bored with her vanilla fiancée (Jay Duplass, natch) and convinced that every bad thing is a sign to run away. Never mind that poison ivy is the price you pay for fucking in the woods, Dana sees her rash as a symptom of the rot in her life. When she runs into her smarmy and square-jawed college ex (Finn Wittrock, who looks more like Josh Brolin than Josh Brolin), it’s only a matter of time before he’s going down on her at Cinema Village.
The natural assumption is Dana will be the one to steer us through all the laughter, tears, and cum jokes that the film has in store, but “Landline” refuses to be tethered to any particular character. On the contrary, Robespierre uses her most accessible conflict as a Trojan horse into the bigger shitstorm that’s brewing in plain sight.
Dana’s dad (John Turturro), a failed playwright who’s settled for a copywriting gig, has always been the “good cop” when it’s come to policing family squabbles, but he’s not doing such a hot job of hiding the (awful) erotic poetry he’s writing for his mistress. Dana’s mom (Edie Falco) is a high-powered breadwinner who looks right at home in one of Hillary Clinton’s signature power outfits, but she’s got her hands full with her youngest daughter, Ali, a high school senior with a killer singing voice and a serious need to get the hell away from home.
Played by immensely talented newcomer Abby Quinn (readymade for breakout status), Ali isn’t just the movie’s secret weapon; she’s also its secret heroine. In a film about people feeling pressured to wriggle away from who they are, Ali is the only character who hasn’t even figured out who she is, yet. She’s smart and dumb, she hates her mom just enough to love her even more, and each one of her outbursts feels more painfully relatable than the last. Watching she and her sister — often at each other’s throats — find common ground amidst their shared states of being miserable is one of the movie’s greatest joys.
“Obvious Child” fans will be happy to learn that yes, there’s a whole lot of bedroom dancing involved, though the percussive liberation of Paul Simon has been replaced by the storming righteousness of Angel Olsen.
It’s a little strange that, in a film set during the ’90s and keen to celebrate its culture, the most potent music cue is lifted off an album that came out just a few months ago, but “Landline” wears its period trappings lightly (and Robespierre does make room for some solid songs from the era). This isn’t nostalgia porn; it doesn’t milk many laughs out of a New York that no longer exists. There are a number of very organic references to television shows of the time (the vagina wedgie that Helen Hunt rocked on “Mad About You” gets a major shoutout) and kids treat weed like it’s heroin, but the majority of Robespierre’s period-specific touches feel woven into the fabric of daily life. The big thing is that nobody has a cell phone and digital culture doesn’t exist, details that make the Jacobs family drama seem a lot more inescapable for everyone involved.
Of course, the ’90s seem like a simpler time, and maybe they were, but life is never simple when you’re living through it. The way that Robespierre carves that tension out of this scenario is a testament to her extraordinary gifts as a writer, as well as those of her regulator collaborator Elisabeth Holm — “Landline” may not be quite as funny as “Obvious Child” (it’s not really trying to be), but it feels every bit as authentic, and that’s doubly true when everything goes wrong and the characters are forced to deal with their consequences. In some respects, this isn’t an especially ambitious movie, and its familiar narrative trajectory is at odds with its ramshackle strengths, but there isn’t a single moment that doesn’t feel true.
While still not much of a stylist, Robespierre’s functional, occasionally stultifying approach to composition has the benefit of letting her actors take the wheel, the frame always giving them the room they need to express their truths or pee on each other (yeah) or try to score some heroin while dressed as one of the California Raisins. The director has such a strong ear that it’s easy to overlook her less-confident eye; she knows what she’s looking for, even if she doesn’t always know the most compelling way to show it to us. Who can’t relate to that? In what other movie would it be easier to forgive?
“Landline” is a textured, silly, sweet, and deeply felt comedy that traces the distance between the most satisfied parts of ourselves and the most desperate, between the people we are and the people we think we should be, and it finds that — for better or worse — we’re all stuck somewhere in between. If only it were easier to forgive each other for that, and not just jump out of the tub as soon as the tap stopped running.
“Landline” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.