Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/01/17 19:51:01

"Doesn't quite have it wired."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: It wouldn't be a proper film festival without a movie in which New Yorkers did nothing but fret about their relationships, and as those go, this one isn't so bad. It's got a few funny moments, and there's a nice chemistry between Jenny Slate and Abby Quinn as well-cast sisters. Folks don't wind up seeming so self-absorbed that one winds up hating them and wanting to get out of the theater at any cost, which is my usual reaction. That's a bit of a win.

It starts out on Labor Day 1995 and follows sisters Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Jenny Slate). Abby is starting her senior year of high school but doesn't give it a whole lot of thought, cutting class and hanging out with good boy and bad girl best friends. while Dana's marriage to dependable but dull Ben (Jay Duplass) doesn't seem to be going anywhere, except maybe backwards when college friend Nate (Finn Wittrock) re-enters the picture. This leads to both sisters winding up at the family's vacation house one night and crossing paths a lot more after that, eventually discovering the love poems their father (John Turturro) is writing to someone who is not their mother (Edie Falco), a mystery they determine to solve.

It's not necessarily a bad situation, but there's kind of nothing to it once you try to give it any sort of close look. Director Gillian Robespierre and her co-writers have more than a few funny scenes to play out, a game cast, and a situation that may be what gets something like 8% of indie comedy-dramas started but which ideally strikes a chord in terms of how can be uncertain about long relationships. Unfortunately, there is too much of that uncertainty as the film starts making its way to its conclusion. Nothing about either relationship that is in danger strongly suggests that it is worth saving or needs destroying. A lot of the last act seems to be Dana trying to reconcile with Ben more by default than any reason that's compelling to the audience and though the 1990s may have been a generation ago, this seems like a cosmopolitan enough group that the audience should expect a little more than inertia at that point.

The setting gives the film some of its title, in that few people have mobile phones with which they can resolve misunderstandings in real time. The "hey, look, it's the 1990s!" gags do border on annoying at points, although when they're not making sure that the audience notices that C&C Music Factory is on the soundtrack, they do manage to make sure that it's an interesting inflection point of time and place, just at the point where being in each other's business is almost unavoidable but when one could still drop off the radar by walking out the door and turning a corner (and a kid in a nice neighborhood didn't have to do much more to find the scarier parts of New York, either). It's a cluttered, messy world from before when minimalism took over, although not so overpoweringly so that it doesn't seem like Ali and Dana could navigate it. There's funny stuff in a lot of corners, with a Halloween sequence funny even as it does dig deep into the 90s nostalgia.

Though Jenny Slate will likely be top billed, Abby Quinn is the film's breakout star. Ali's a smart but under-motivated, occasionally sarcastic teen, and Quinn pulls off how Ali often seems disinterested without her often seeming lazy or distasteful in the way slackers were often portrayed at the time. Her muted sharpness plays well against the erratic panic of Dana, although Slate's take on their character character may be an acquired taste; she seems to be all weird tics for much of the movie. It may be the best she can do - Dana's the sort of character who seems to be caught by shocked by things that everyone around her accepts easily at every turn despite being described as smart and capable in other scenes, so the breathy perplexity with which Slate plays her may be the only way to go. They're given some good folks to play off, though, with John Turturro and Edie Falco making for more interesting parents than these films often get and even the smaller roles cast well.

That lack of any real heft to the conflicts in the center does often mean that "Landline" can often seem to be just going through the motions rather than driving at anything. It goes through the motions pretty well, at least, and I guess that's okay, especially if the setting and circumstances resonate better for other viewers than they do for this one.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.