Sometimes, I enjoy a movie so much that the task of having to put my thoughts into words proves too intimidating to even attempt. Such was the case with Gillian Robespierre’s 2014 directorial debut “Obvious Child,” which ended up on my top 10 list for that year despite never receiving a proper review from me. In that film, Robespierre (who also co-wrote) and star Jenny Slate managed to put a comedic spin on a story about unwanted pregnancy, and the results were suitably gut-wrenching in the best possible way. In short, I was far more concerned with addressing the subject matter delicately than they were, and backed off rather than presume to have an ounce of the kind of expertise that made “Obvious Child” so brilliant.
Following up an acclaimed debut feature isn’t easy to do, but Robespierre and Slate rise admirably to the task with “Landline,” another dramatic comedy that tackles uncomfortable and realistic personal issues with a similar flair for endearingly damaged characters that we want to see make good even if we don’t agree with their choices. This time out, Slate co-stars as part of an outstanding ensemble that puts her in the company of veteran performers like John Turturro (“O Brother, Where Art Thou”) and Edie Falco (“The Sopranos”) as her character Dana’s parents Alan and Pat and impressive new talent Abby Quinn as her younger sister Ali.
Set in New York City in 1995, “Landline” opens with a hilariously matter-of-fact sex scene between Dana and her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass, “Transparent”) in the woods outside the family’s summer cabin. Despite their comfort level and connection, things between the couple aren’t quite as fun as they seem to be, and we soon discover that Alan and Pat’s marriage is on shaky ground as well, which is reflected in teenage Ali’s behavior as she routinely acts out in anger and frustration.
When compared to “Obvious Child,” “Landline” reveals more about Robespierre’s previous work than was readily apparent the first time around. Slate — who at the time was perhaps best known for being fired from the “Saturday Night Live” cast for accidentally saying the F-word during a live broadcast — had something to prove, and Robespierre did as well. “Landline” feels more relaxed and is less reliant on blue one-liners, and despite a few pit stops made in the first act that draw attention to the time period (I admit I enjoyed the soundtrack that reminded me of everything I listened to my senior year of high school, but showing Dana at a record store listening station screamed ‘90s), it was clear throughout that Robespierre had no problem handling a larger and more complex production.
With the future of big studio comedies in serious jeopardy, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Robespierre’s next gig bring her to Hollywood, but they’d be wise to keep a safe distance creatively. What makes “Landline” such a multi-layered experience is the transgressive edge Robespierre maintains from “Obvious Child” and brings to maturity here. Dana isn’t the main character; she’s a piece of an expertly-balanced study on insecurity, family dynamics, and the reverberations felt by everyone within the home and how things spoken ring just as loudly as those that are kept hidden. There’s a lot to process and much to praise, and this time, I decided to try and harness a little of the brave spirit Robespierre and her incredible cast to communicate my recommendation to you.
“Landline” opens tomorrow at Athens Cine. Visit www.athenscine.com for show times.