2017 San Francisco International Film Festival: “Landline” is writer and director Gillian Robespierre’s highly anticipated follow-up to her critically well-received directorial debut, “Obvious Child.” Robespierre keeps the artistic integrity of her first feature with the same creative team behind “Obvious Child,” with Elisabeth Holm returning as a co-screenwriter and Jenny Slate (who burst onto the silver screen with “Obvious Child” in a star-making role) as an executive producer and lead actor. Set against the backdrop of Manhattan, New York in the Giuliani-era ’90s, this nostalgic family drama boasts an all-star supporting cast including John Turturro, Edie Falco, Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock and newcomer Abby Quinn.
Dana (Slate) plays a disheveled art department employee for a magazine who finds herself in a transitional limbo, struggling to take her relationship with her fiancé, Ben (Duplass), to the logical next step of marriage as an old college friend, Nate (Wittrock), stirs up old romantic feelings, and the two begin an intense sexual but emotionally void affair. Her younger sister, Ali (Quinn), gives her parents more gray hairs each passing day as she casually procrastinates college applications, explores the blossoming rave scene, drugs and a sexual awakening through love.
Ali and Dana’s parents, Alan (Turturro) and Pat (Falco), now empty-nesters, have no kids left in the house to distract them from their failing marriage, filled with suspicions of infidelity and regret over career shortcomings. Alan is a copywriter for corporate snack brands, but has always aspired, and failed, to become a playwright. Ali and Dana find out through his hilariously risqué poems kept on his computer that he is having an affair with his new muse and actor in his upcoming play, Carla. Together, they decide to move back in with their parents and repair their splintered family.
The film plays as a series of vignettes dissecting each family member’s problems. Robespierre succeeds at making another candid, comedic portrayal of family dysfunction and difficult life transitions, this time from a multigenerational perspective. Detail-oriented in accentuating this period piece, she seemingly effortlessly captures everything from the alluring griminess of after-hour raves, to CD shopping at hipster record stores, Blockbuster, poetry slams, the emergence of graffiti as an art form, Mac II floppy disks, and plenty of pop culture references including a hilarious reference to Helen Hunt’s visible cameltoe in the TV series, “Mad About You” (1992-1999). Robespierre also makes sure to remind the viewer that the lovable cheesiness that was the ‘80s still lingers through songs like “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood or Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts.” She even cleverly adds some political and social commentary in her story, condoning Giuliani’s lopsided funding of police reform, the implementation of the infamous and wildly ineffective and racist stop and frisk policy, and a nod to Hillary Clinton’s now-iconic pantsuits during one of her speeches as First Lady of the United States through several characters’ compliments of her attire (cheekily breaking the fourth wall and foreshadowing Clinton’s famous Facebook fan group, “Pantsuit Nation”).
Again, Slate is the standout in “Landline.” As Dana, her neuroticism provides both much-needed comic relief and emotional depth, and her buoyant onscreen presence is infectious. Her spontaneous laughs are natural, timely and honest, providing a realistic and unadulterated look into the workings of a thoughtful character with an aloofness that offers up adeptly executed contagious laughs. Each mumble of self-deprecation, mannerism and noise that comes out of Dana’s mouth is delivered with precision. To Slate, Robespierre, and Holm’s credit, they portray infidelity, whether with male or female characters, with objectiveness. Dana is a truly good person who made a mistake, as is her father, Alan. This a refreshing take on infidelity, which is often shown through the perspective of one-dimensional characters, as opposed to actual relatable, emotionally intelligent people.
Robespierre and Holm develop their secondary characters in Ben, Ali, Alan and Pat into believable people that are equally as multidimensional as Slate’s Dana. The movie is at its best when these characters are bonding in intimate settings. When Dana and Ali find themselves spending a night at their family country home, a deeply satisfying episodic montage ensues, and the two embrace the beauty of spontaneity, dancing and making up characters for their alter egos as a way to comically come to terms with their seemingly inexplicable change in actions. The foundation of the film, its heart, is the love story between these two sisters. Towards the film’s ending, Pat and her daughters, after finally opening up about Alan’s infidelity, share cigarettes together in the bathroom. Robespierre’s ability to deftly navigate these scenes with little dialogue, placing full confidence in and giving her actors freedom to interact, react and improvise, is one of her many strengths.
There is movement in cinema that is finally opening it up to its full potential. Accompanying emerging female filmmakers along the likes of Gia Coppola (“Palo Alto”), Patricia Rozema (“Into the Forest”), Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”), and Ava DuVernay (“13th”), Robespierre is one of the leading voices in a new generation of emerging female talents behind the camera in film, and it is one of the best things to happen to the industry in its more than 100-year lifecycle. It is long overdue. More films from a woman’s perspective is a welcome change occurring in Hollywood.