Early in Gillian Robespierre’s new film, Landline, Dana (Jenny Slate), compulsively scratching a poison ivy rash contracted in a not-so-romantic encounter in the woods with her fiancé, sits across a desk from a co-worker discussing their dates from the previous night. Effusively, the co-worker describes a romantic, hours’ long “epic conversation on the rooftop.” Dana, pausing, responds that she and her fiancé, in contrast, had spent “three hours at Blockbuster.” “We got Curly Sue,” she adds. It’s the kind of specific, funny, and evocative moment that punctuates and defines Robespierre’s work, a moment that deftly situates us in the time and space of the film’s 1995 setting, in a character’s emotional landscape, and in the thematic framework.
For anyone like me who, like Dana and her younger sister, Ali (Abby Quinn), spent teen and young adult years in the 1990’s, the Landline mise-en-scène holds a mix of cringing and delighted recognition, capturing as it does the texture of the era–the inevitable presence of the critically-panned Curly Sue on video store shelves (the VHS cover is burned in my memory), the corded phones, the voicemail boxes, pay phones, boxy PCs, floppy disks, clove cigarettes, “Bring Me a Higher Love” and 80’s hits on the car radio, mix tapes, Mad About You, “world music,” music stores and listening stations, scratched skipping CD’s, Natalie Merchant, baggy overalls over crop tops, Benihana, and roller-blades. But Robespierre embeds these 90’s-specific things in the film in such a way that they do not really call attention to themselves, nor are they effective just for those who lived in the era as a young adult. Like any details of effective character development might do, they simply serve the story, and any viewer can find a home in it, begin to love it and understand it. The world is the characters’ home and, as such, part of them and part of our understanding of them.
It is a film about a family and the complexities of their relationships to one another. While ultimately centering on Dana and her perspective, it also often focuses on her sister, mother, and father. The story teases out the ways in which the lives they all lead and their closest relationships within those lives constantly test their ideas about who they are and who they want to be. It explores the ways an idea about the self, often an idealized self, conflicts with a confused, messy, or mundane reality.
Alan, Dana’s father (John Turturro), comes home from work saying, wryly, “Today, I wrote beautiful copy for fake Oreos,” and hands a package of no-brand cookies to Ali. His career is defined by writing meaningless ads, and so, in his spare time, in a bid for dignity and for the idea of a different self, he writes plays; he organizes a play reading and asks his reluctant family to come. He longs for their endorsement of the self he wants to be.
Pat, Dana’s mother (Edie Falco), in a high-powered job in the city, sports a pink suit, a lookalike of the one she sees Hillary Clinton wearing on TV, and moves successfully and efficiently through her work space but flounders when she comes home, impatiently rebuffing Alan’s tentative romantic gestures and losing every battle with the teenage Ali, who refuses to fill out college applications, skips classes, lies about where she’s going and who she’s with.
And Ali, perhaps in an effort to ward off the pain and disappointment she sees in other lives, holds life at a distance, using her beautiful voice to sing ironic songs, sleeping with a boy she refuses to call her boyfriend, pretending not to care when her friend asks her to buy heroin for her.
Each of them is struggling in some way their failures–or the idea of failure–and how those impact their self-identity, their self-worth.
And Dana herself, engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass), scratches at the poison ivy rash as she lies beside him at night and can’t seem to commit to any specific wedding plans, recoiling from the idea of wedding dress shopping with her mother. It hasn’t been very romantic, she finds, to stand shivering at the other end of the shower while you wait for your partner to rinse off, and how much of life with someone is made up of hiding in the bathroom while he reads out Hammacher Schlemmer product descriptions to you from bed? In Dana’s face and in her body language (so expressively and warmly realized by Jenny Slate), we see the question: Is this really it?
For Dana and for her family, reality collides with dreams and with ideal selves; day-to-day living, inevitably, brings disappointment, betrayals. Betrayals of self, betrayals of others. “I’m flailing,” says Dana. “I’m trying to figure out if the life I’ve picked for myself is the one I want. And I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask that question.”
Landline does allow Dana that question. It allows Alan, Pat, and Ali that question, too. And through them, it allows us to ask it as well. It is, certainly, a question we see elsewhere in other cinematic stories, most often situated as a mid-life crisis that a middle-aged man faces, It’s a Wonderful Life, perhaps, one of the most beloved examples. Beautiful and profound as that film is, it still assumes that Mary Bailey, all her life, only ever wanted to marry George and that marriage to him, exactly as it turned out, is everything she could ever want. There’s never a question of her contentment. Landline, in contrast, recognizes the question might plague other lives, too; it understands it might occur at various stages of life and for various people in different ways. It, refreshingly, centers on a female perspective, especially, as noted, on Dana’s, and on Dana’s and Ali’s as sisters, but it also demonstrates the complexities of the male characters’ points of view, too. A mid-life crisis for a middle-aged man, here, is inextricably tied up in the crises his female family members are facing.
Dana and her family’s story shows there aren’t any easy answers to the hardest questions that haunt us, in part because we can never be sure how a particular choice in a moment of living will affect the life we think we want to lead and in part because those hard questions are so intimately tied up in the web of relationships with the people around us, each of whom suffers his or her own private struggles, failures, and dreams. And, ultimately, Landline, through characters we come to love, faces those hard questions with humor, honesty, and poignancy.
Back in 1995, I think I had a different idea about what honest and poignancy in film meant. That year, I went to the cinema with my college friends and saw Before Sunrise. We thought we saw ourselves reflected on screen in the young faces of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. We knew, beyond all doubt, we wanted what they had, and we were sure it could be real: the instant connection and the momentous, beautiful, all-night, truthful conversation about life, the universe, and everything.
Before Sunrise is still one of my favorite films, but I no longer believe in the sustainability of such magical nights, though perhaps such nights do happen upon us from time to time. Landline reminds me that, while standing shivering in the shower waiting for your turn isn’t very romantic and hours of indecision at a Blockbuster might end in Curly Sue, there’s more meaning in the mundane than we might initially think, whatever struggles about our sense of self we face along the way.
And you know, I think the critics were probably wrong about Curly Sue. It isn’t Before Sunrise. But like “Bring Me a Higher Love” on the car radio and one’s dad belting out the chorus from the front seat–simultaneously irritating and comforting–it is part of the texture of life.
Landline opens in Seattle on July 28 and in Bellingham on August 11 at Pickford Film Center.