Most of the time a coming of age drama revolves around some self-possessed teenager or early twenty-something who must contend with some enormous life change or scenario that forces them to really look at their current state and who they are as a person. When said emotional journey is over, the character has usually learned some sort of important life lesson and moves on to a seemingly fresh path with new found wisdom. In Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre's follow up to 2014's OBVIOUS CHILD, the duo joins forces once again with LANDLINE- this time capturing an entire family going through their own respective "coming of age" tale. Though the filmmaking team is not exactly on the money with this dramedy go 'round, LANDLINE does offer up complex characters and incredible performances by an impressive cast including another endearing portrayal by Slate.
The film takes place in 1995- a time when hairstyles were finally beginning to deflate, computers where big old clunky machines that barely connected to the world wide web, and teenagers could much more easily evade their prying parents. Dana (Slate), the eldest daughter of the family has predictably settled down post-college with her fiance and her first big girl office job. She is the "perfect one" compared to her rave loving, acid tongued (literal and figurative) rebellious little sister Ali (Abby Quinn) who also predictably confounds her parents with her somewhat vanilla disobedience. Adding even further to the cliches are Alan and Pat (John Turturro and Edie Falco) as the parents who barely tolerate one another in order to maintain the facade of the perfect family. When Ali discovers her dad's torrid poetry inspired by a mysterious "C", she and her sister suddenly bond in their pursuit of discovering the truth about their parent's relationship.
Though the story has all the bells and whistles of a compelling family drama, I just couldn't fully buy into it. For instance, Ali discovers her father's salacious writing on an "Alan" folder within a 3.5 inch floppy disc labeled "Ali's College Shit." Though they squeezed in a funny reference to the clunkiness of 90's computer technology as the teenager attempts to cram the disc into the old school drive, I couldn't help wondering why in the world a father would store such material on media his daughter and wife would no doubt be accessing on the regular. Additionally, a dual story line involving Dana doing a personality about face and embracing her wild side in the midst of the secret family drama just didn't seem to fit. Though scenes of her letting loose certainly provided some of the more entertaining sequences in the film, the sudden swap in the attitudes of the sisters seemed at odds with the crux of the story. Also, while I admire the nod to the decade of my formative years rife with pop culture references and an essential 90's alternative soundtrack, I was left scratching my head as to why the story was set in the last decade of the twentieth century. Though Slate does have perfect 90's "Elaine" hair and I suppose the lack of technology and communication helps illustrate the family's disconnect, the story really could've been set in any era. I dug the throwback aesthetic and definitely chuckled at some of the terrible fashion emergencies I subscribed to myself, alas I guess I was thinking that a move called LANDLINE would better utilize the technological limitations of 22 years ago versus simply using the era as funny back round.
Aside from all of that, I was incredibly pleased with the way director writer Robespierre and her co writer Elizabeth Holm transformed the aforementioned stereotypical characters into fully fleshed out and complex people. You can almost see the moment when Ali realizes her parents aren't perfect people who make all the right decisions and she changes her tune about giving them constant shit. Instead of Alan's character continuing as the down-trodden victim of a shrew, we get to see that he is actually quite a passionate person who only wishes to share his lust for life with his partner. But I found Pat's character the most interesting and conflicted as a wife who has just plain fallen out of love with her adoring husband and never really changes her tune even after he basically spells it all out for her. To me, it illustrates that no matter how much you love someone, you can't make them love you back even when you share a beautiful family. Sad as it may sound, I was thrilled that not all of the characters achieved some transformative state where they realize their own flaws and issues. Sometimes that's just the way it is. Unfortunately, I never got on board with Dana's predicament. Sure, I can understand a young person on the cusp of marriage questioning whether or not they are ready for such a commitment, however Dana's plight comes off as completely self-centered instead of conflicted. You could look at her from the perspective of "nobody's perfect" and "we all make mistakes", but it was pretty tough for me to totally like her character. Some may look at that as a good thing, but in this context it caused her subplot to never click for me.
The main aspect that held my attention throughout the film though were the incredible performances. Though I found Slate's character slightly annoying, the actress's portrayal of the flaky Dana is as endearing as she could have possibly made it. Though the character is mostly making terrible decisions throughout the film, Slate somehow manages to make me not hate the character entirely with her sweet demeanor and sense of overall good intentions. Abby Quinn offers a witty and fun take on the rebellious Ali, but also imbues the character with the kind of angsty and contemplative nature most teenagers go through in order to forge their own persona. As the father Alan, John Turturro makes the audience truly feel every emotional gut punch as he tries desperately to cling to his family while maybe-or-maybe-not pursuing the passion that still burns inside. And even though her character's journey may be the most truncated of the crew, Edie Falco's take on the loveless Pat is breathtaking. She says more with one exasperated look than many actors can in an entire monologue, and though her character is quite miserable her performance is heartrendingly beautiful.
So, while I wasn't totally on board with some of the aspects of LANDLINE, I can definitely say it's worth a watch. It is a solid ensemble dramedy- heavy on the drama- that has some pretty memorable moments with a loving nod to the 90's. The Amazon Studios release opens nationwide on August 4, so go check it out. Thanks for reading!
aka Annette Kellerman