When a director crafts a youth comedy that’s also a pop-culture period piece, like “Everybody Wants Some!!” or “Twentieth Century Women,” it’s important for the audience to feel they know why — to know what it is about that moment that ignited the filmmaker’s imagination, beyond his or her desire to sprinkle a movie with the mix-tape nuggets, hipster TV choices, and hairstyles of their youth. “Landline,” the pleasingly spiky and confident second feature directed and co-written by Gillian Robespierre (“Obvious Child”), is set in Manhattan in the long-ago, far-away, now-exotic year of 1995, and it’s fun to hook into the movie’s remember-this? vibe — the references to slam poetry and Lorena Bobbitt and eyebrow rings and Must-See TV, to renting “Curly Sue” at Blockbuster (and actually thinking it’s funny), to Hillary Clinton as a fashion role model, to second-hand CD stores with world-music listening stations. But the inner justification for the setting is also there, and what’s cool is the way it sneaks up on you.
It is, of course, the last moment of the technological stone age. There is no Internet and no cell phones, and that means that when the characters rub each other the wrong way, they tend to keep talking; they can’t go and hide behind a digital wall. But there’s another, deeper reason for the ’90s setting, which is that it’s the first moment of something — a new kind of casually aggressive, bombs-away style of freedom for young women, one that gives them enough intoxicating choices that they don’t quite know what to do with them. (Think “Girls ’95: The Groundbreakers.”)
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“Landline” centers on two sisters: Dana (Jenny Slate), who’s in her late twenties and works as a layout artist at Paper magazine, and Ali (Abby Quinn), a high-school senior and increasingly reckless club kid who still lives at home, but acts like she has the divine right to be out on her own. (She plays at being heartless.) Over the course of the film, these two, who depend on each other, will do some bad things — snorting heroin, carrying on an illicit affair — but mostly they act out their freedom by saying whatever clever snipy thing pops into their heads. They’re testing the waters of what they can get away with, and damned if it doesn’t feel good to them, even when it isn’t.
There’s always been a brand of Sundance comedy that’s out to capture authentic behavior but is too cutely patterned and sitcom-y (“The Way, Way Back,” “Pieces of April”). But then there are the independent filmmakers who know how to create an anthropological ensemble comedy and hit the right notes without getting bogged down in fake “situations”: directors like Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), Ira Sachs (“Little Men”), Nicole Holefcener (“Enough Said”), and Craig Johnson (“The Skeleton Twins”). Gillian Robespierre has the potential to be in their league, though she isn’t quite there yet. “Obvious Child” was a breezy but overly easy abortion comedy, and in “Landline” the story she’s telling works, but at times it’s a little wobbly and rambling. Yet she’s still a born filmmaker who thinks in three dimensions and stages scenes with a perky humanity.
Jenny Slate, who also starred in “Obvious Child,” has a bright-eyed, curly-haired, crinkly-grinned ethnic look that’s so “normal” it now seems, in the age of too many idealized actress-models, downright exotic, and she also has an emotional vibrance that pops on screen. She plays Dana as a happy person who feels compelled to test out her happiness, to poke and prod it, because if she didn’t she’d think she was copping out. Dana lives with her fiancé, Ben (Jay Duplass), whom she loves, and the two are ahead of the curve in adopting a “Mad About You”-and-chill lifestyle, but part of her is asking, and wisely: Is this all there is? When she runs into her old college pal (Finn Wittrock), she allows herself to get drawn into his sexy orbit, and before long she has slept with him. She’s playing by the new rules — I’m a girl! I can do whatever I want! — but it’s a sin that starts to eat away at her, so she moves back home, as if she were kicking herself out of her own life.
Her transgression echoes the one committed by her father. Edie Falco and John Turturro play Dana and Ali’s parents, who have been together for so long that they saw Lenny Bruce live on one of their first dates (he died in 1966). Now they’re caught in a stagnant marriage: He’s an advertising copy writer who clings to his dream of being an author (he writes terrible plays), and she’s a full-time mom who lashes out at him for being weak. It’s Ali who uncovers his affair when she finds a floppy disk of his erotic poetry and reads it, aghast, on his boxy beige MacIntosh computer. Turturro, much gentler than usual, lets you see the desperation he’s hiding, and Falco shows you the fear behind her hard-ass anger. “Landline” is a dramatic comedy about a family full of secrets, and what’s mature — and, in its way, reassuring — about the film is that it views this state of affairs as an all-too-natural one.
Dana craves the safety of domesticity, and misses it. But she also wants a partner who will talk dirty to her to signify that he’s a little dangerous — and Jay Duplass, as Ben, is the opposite of dangerous. That’s the real can-a-woman-have-it-all? question Dana is wrestling with: the mid-’90s one, the “Sex and the City” one (though the show wouldn’t debut until 1998), the one about the pain that comes from having the freedom to pursue pleasure for its own sweet sake. Gillian Robespierre still needs to fine-tune her skills as a storyteller, but scene for scene she has the right audacity — the honest kind — to explore that kind of experience. I can hardly wait for her next Sundance movie.