As evidenced by the fact that so many of them are terrible, making a good family dramedy is hard. It’s easy to fall into tropes and saccharine sentiments, especially since the family experience is one that is both universal and very personal. But filmmaker Gillian Robespierre gives it a solid effort to mostly positive results with Landline, a 90s-set family dramedy about growing up. While the film isn’t as narratively focused as Robespierre’s terrific debut Obvious Child, it has charm to spare and hits upon a few insights that, while maybe a little trite, nevertheless ring true.
Set in 1995, Landline stars Jenny Slate as Dana, a woman who seemingly has everything together with a marriage to her straight-laced fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass) on the way. The same can’t be said for her younger sister Ali, a high school student with a penchant for cutting class, trying drugs, and hitting the hippest 90s clubs of New York City. Dana’s parents, meanwhile, seem to have grown apart over the years which becomes all the more prescient when Dana suffers a quarter-life-crisis, cheating on her fiancé with a college flame (Finn Wittrock).
Much of the film finds Dana trying to figure herself out, while using Ali’s troubles as an excuse to stay at her family home. The sisters soon discover that their father may or may not be having an affair, and as Dana navigates adulthood, trying to ensure she’s following the right path, her life around her seems to be crumbling.
90s nostalgia runs rampant throughout the film (attention Steve Winwood fans), but Robespierre doesn’t use the time period as a storytelling crutch. She has fun when she can mind you, and it’s undeniably a treat to see 90s fashion make such a big comeback on the big screen, but rarely does the film go out of its way to go “Hey! Remember the 90s??”
The narrative itself is admittedly a bit meandering. Whereas Obvious Child had a very clear plot focus, Robespierre is spinning many plates in Landline: entering adulthood, navigating the challenges of a lengthy marriage, teenage peer pressure. The movie at times feels like it’s aimlessly bouncing around, and while it does hit upon some solid scenes in each storyline, one imagines the narrative may have been a bit better served by a more streamlined story.
Slate brightens up the screen with her infectious, charismatic performance as Dana. She’s more than proven her dramatic chops, and Landline is yet another reminder that Slate should be leading way more movies by herself. But she’s also surrounded by a solid ensemble cast, with Edie Falco delivering a predictably dynamic turn as the family’s matriarch, and Abby Quinn is impressive in what could be a breakthrough performance for the young actress as Ali. She more than holds her own opposite Slate, and she deftly avoids “broken teenager” clichés.
Landline is a nice movie. Dana’s relationship with her husband is one of the film’s highlights (more Jay Duplass in movies please), and it’s nice to see a female-driven family narrative for once that doesn’t fall into typical tropes. The cast is charming, the photography is warmly nostalgic, and the characters really coalesce into a nice family dynamic. But there’s something missing in the end, as the film feels somewhat incomplete. It’s honest and sweet, but one can’t help but think that focusing the narrative a tad would have resulted in a more satisfying watch.
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