Set in the mid-1990s, Gillian Robespierre’s second feature is one of the most beautiful and plangent New York family dramas in years, revolving around the Jacobs – father Alan, played by John Turturro, mother Pat, played by Edie Falco, and daughters Dana, played by Jenny Slate, and Ali, played by Abby Quinn – and centring on two romantic affairs. First, there is Alan’s affair with a mysterious woman named “C,” who Dana and Ali find out about after discovering a series of poems written to this “C” on a floppy disk. Second, there is Dana’s affair, which takes place just after her long-term boyfriend, Ben, played by Jay Duplass, proposes to her. In another kind of film, those two affairs might “disrupt” the family dynamic, but part of the pleasure of Landline is that it presents a family unit that is already a little awry to begin with, and never quite situated firmly enough in its 90s backdrop to feel like a straightforward exercise in elegiac nostalgia. The first scene says it all, really, as Robespierre presents us with a mock-pastoral opening in which Dana and Ben “plan to have sex in the woods,” only to find that it’s not worth the trouble, paving the way for a film that resists the pastoral naturalism endemic to so much New York family drama of this kind – a taut counterpoint to the stylised melancholy of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
That’s not to say that Landline isn’t melancholy, however, but that its more bittersweet touches are handled in a casual and familiar way that feels autobiographical, just as the narrative is full of things hidden and left in corners and small spaces, with Dana and Ben tucking themselves away in a matinee screening the first time they meet in public. Insofar as there’s a narrative throughline, it revolves around Dana’s attempt to navigate this affair while helping Ali investigate their father’s, but both affairs are quickly subsumed into a broader ambience of browsing, perusing and cruising that feels very much of its time – the last gasp of a certain kind of unadorned urban wandering before the social media revolution that was just around the corner. As we drift from live music venues to record stores, and their snooping draws Dana and Ali closer together, Robespierre beautifully evokes a more permeable New York, a city with so much to give if the characters can just push it a little, as well as a city that reveals all its most precious secrets during moments of down time, or blank time. With Dana regularly calling in sick from work, and Ali regularly wagging school, the two find themselves people watching as much as anything else, moving from one urban tableau to the next with a serendipitous awareness of the pleasures of the present moment.
That taste for down time isn’t just restricted to Dana and Ali, however, but extends to the Jacobs family as a whole, each of whom pursue their own slightly oblique, awry and unexpected paths of desire over the course of the film. With Ali on the verge of leaving home, and Dana just returning home in the wake of her affair, the space between the family and the outside world grows even more fluid, even as it becomes clear that this fluid space is, in some sense, what constitutes the family as well. The more distended they become, and the more obliquely their paths and lives cross, the more expansive and encompassing their familial unit seems to be, which is perhaps why Landline never presents its central family as “eccentric,” or as “fallen” in the way of so many films of this kind. While Alan and Jacobs may have separated, and Dana and Ben may have got together, by the time they finally reconvene at their favourite Japanese restaurant, it doesn’t feel as ifthat much has changed, just as the two affairs at the heart of it all only seem to affect the net movement of this family, which remains capable of retaining its essence even with parental separation.
Yet if Landline is keen to avoid the elegiac register of films like The Meyerowitz Stories, The Squid and the Whale and The Royal Tenenbaums, then it never insists upon or assumes the continuity of this flexible, provisional family structure either. Towards the end of the film, Dana tells Ben that “I just want to live a life where we’re always choosing each other,” a sentiment that quickly comes to feel like the mantra for the entire family, which only consists in each member’s ongoing willingness to choose the others in the midst of shifting circumstances, as well as each member’s willingness to remain open to being chosen in turn. Continuously rechoosing each other, and permitting themselves to be chosen, the four members of the family never quite align with the idea of the family itself, just as the film, as a whole, seems to trace out a critical moment at which the institution of the family started to wane in American culture. By inhabiting its most minor and awry fringes, however, they do manage to inhabit some strange and mercurial space between the family and what lies beyond it, leading to one blurring, blending and blooming motif after another that all coalesce around the rashes and infections that both frustrate the surface of Dana’s body, but also provide a point of solace, care and affection between her and the family at large.
In that respect, Landline is probably more reminiscent of Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women than the conventional New York family drama, since here, as there, we’re presented with a collection of characters who are all living in very different versions of the present tense. For some, it’s a present suffused with futurity, whereas for others, it’s a present suffused with lateness, but the beauty of the film is that they all experience a mixture of these extremes at one point or another. Indeed, as Robespierre frames it, that mixture is simply what a family is – an incommensurate present tense that can only be inhabited in awry ways, and whose different registers and imperatives finally amount to a bittersweet awareness of the present tense as something that can never be fully inhabited by all of them together. Hence the moments of awkward yet tremulous body language that ensue when all four characters try to occupy the same space in a sustained way, along with the beautiful performances that Robespierre manages to coax out of her cast in order to make these moments so memorable. No doubt, Slate is at the centre of it all, since her work here is even more refined than in Obvious Child, as she moves from irreverene to pathos in the blink of an eye, exuding a slight tipsiness that never quite subsides, but never quite progresses into a full-blown high either, leaving her inimitable voice trickling on the verge of a torrent of affect that never quite finds its final object, or its moment, within the family dynamic as a whole.
It’s not just Slate, however, but Falco and newcomer Quinn who make this such an actorly film, with Falco, in particular, putting in one of the stand-out performances of her career. Between the three of them, it perpetually feels as if the mise-en-scene is on the cusp of breaking out into a dance, or disclosing some dance that will reconcile them into a single haptic entity. Perhaps that’s why pivotal moments of romance seem to be so centred on non-white music and culture, from the party, hosted by a black friend, where Dana first meets her new lover, to the record store where she runs into him again when listening to world music, to Ali’s own boyfriend, Jed, played by Marquis Rodriguez, who also appears in The Meyerowitz Stories in an uncredited role, and whose Hispanic presence also offsets the whiteness of Robespierre’s mise-en-scenes. In another kind of film, this might smack of exoticism, but here the effect is simply to make the Jacobs’ family feel more provisional and marginal, more continuous with an outside world, but connected enough with that world that they never succumb to elegy, but instead keep on choosing, over and over, to change.