“I didn’t run away from home. I went to our family’s house in the country. How much more vanilla can you get?”
Landline covers that awkward, in-between period where teenagers are only embarrassed by their parents to when they understand them as fellow human beings. Ali (Abby Quinn) isn’t quite at that latter stage of acceptance yet. Her father, Alan (John Turturro), writes copy for knock-off Oreos at McCann-Erickson, and her mother, Pat (Edie Falco), manages the playbook for the Democratic party in New York City while keeping her home under even tighter watch. When she’s not hoping for both of them to leave her alone, Ali rebels against the comfortable domesticity her parents provide her with by snorting heroin in a nightclub.
Fumbling with a floppy disc (the film is set in 1995) after coming back from a rave, Ali tackles real injustice when she discovers her father may be having an affair. Adding to the familial chaos is Dana’s (Jenny Slate) decision to move back home after engagement jitters leave her wondering about her future with Ben (Jay Duplass). Without any hard evidence besides the avalanche of erotic poetry, Ali and Dana are hesitant to burden Pat until they monitor Alan’s comings and goings further. Tempted by cheating herself, Dana indulges in the affections of an old college friend (Finn Wittrock), while feeling like a hypocrite for spying on her father for the same discretion. Jenny Slate has done the hot mess routine before, but like her previous collaboration with Gillian Robespierre, she reveals a new side of herself. Moving Slate to the supporting side of things gives this performance more room to breathe than Obvious Child.
Landline spends a lot of time musing on what defines family, but the story is never more affecting than when Ali and Dana bond over this calamitous time. There is a scene where the sisters think they are going to expose their father’s affair, but only catch him cheating on his diet. Both Ali and Dana’s faces reflect a weird mix of relief that they didn’t catch him, but also a sense of boredom that they didn’t witness anything exciting. Such a moment reflects the odd craving for drama that exists within ourselves, yet still serves as an indictment on the swath of independent dramas where the worst possible outcome is malaise.
Infidelity, discord, and heartbreak set to period music is a popular subgenre, but rarely one that comes with innovation. Nothing new is said, and not a thing that happens will surprise you, but watching what happens after the truth comes out is what separates Landline from other dysfunctional family indies. That and Robespierre’s secret weapon: Edie Falco. Pat–rightfully–complains about her status as the villain of the family for doing what no one else will. When she finally boils over, the impact is devastating. If Landline had given Falco and John Turturro more moments like that, it easily would have elevated the entire film.
Instead, the tough choices are sacrificed for studio rom-com formula. Dana’s problems with her fiance disappear after her cheating, Ali has no sort of character development except swearing less, and the parents get left holding the bag script-wise. Considering the big, messy choices that this foursome makes, a tidy ending when all is said and done feels like a cheat. After all of the authentic conversations between perfectly-casted characters, such a safe choice completely deflates the film.