Running beneath the plentiful humor in “Landline” there’s an ache, a need for stability, to feel grounded and sure. No such calm is ever achieved, obviously, but there’s a shared warmth of common desperation and affection that makes the film a lovely success.
It’s mid-’90s New York City and Dana (Jenny Slate) is engaged to her live-in boyfriend, Ben (Jay Duplass). As the film opens, they are awkwardly trying to have sex in a forest setting and Mother Nature isn’t helping things along. What sounds like fun turns into poison ivy. So it goes.
Dana is older sister to foul-mouthed, tritely rebellious teen Ali (Abby Quinn), daughter of frustrated playwright Alan (John Turturro) and take-charge mom Pat (Edie Falco). After returning from a family vacation, Dana finds herself wondering whether she’s truly in love with Ben, whether she wants to settle down, all the standard pre-marriage jitters.
But those jitters become more complicated when she runs into old flame Nate (Finn Wittrock). And they grow more complex when Ali stumbles on poems written by Alan seeming to be written to a mistress.
Dana moves back in with her parents, ostensibly to help Ali solve the riddle of their father’s romantic life, but also because her own romantic life is falling apart. The sisters bond over their mutual confusion, which somehow helps even as it fixes nothing. As the story evolves, lives come undone even as they are joined.
“Landline” is obviously a strong ensemble piece, but the oddly adorable Slate, somehow both quirky and natural, is its centerpiece. This is the second film she’s made with director Gillian Robespierre, following the striking abortion “comedy” “Obvious Child,” both of which Robespierre co-wrote with Elisabeth Holm.
The three make formidable films that have a deceptively light touch; there’s laughter and love, despite all the pain and confusion and uncertainty. It’s an artistic balancing act that looks a lot like life.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Rated R for sexual content, language and drug use
Running time: 97 minutes