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Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate share the tale of a family in crisis

Photo: (l-r) Abby Quinn as Ali, Edie Falco as Pat, and Jenny Slate as Dana in ‘Landline’  Rating: R; Grade: B+

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

In today’s technology-dominated age, access to a phone feels like a right guaranteed at the moment of one’s conception. We carry these devices around in our pockets or boldly in our hands like they are extensions of our bodies, the missing link between our brains and those of everyone else in the world. But the telephone, for those of us old enough to remember the time before phones were smart or even cellular, was a privilege, especially having private access to a landline.

I can recall my teenage years in the 1980s, begging and pleading like the lead singer of some old school doo-wop group to convince my mother to let me have a separate line in my room, so I wouldn’t have to hustle and compete for talk time with her when I needed to catch up with my homeboys or some girl I was trying to woo. When I was finally able to negotiate and seal the deal, I felt like I had earned a Nobel Prize or the Holy Grail. I was free at last.

Watching filmmaker Gillian Robespierre’s new film “Landline” is to appreciate that freedom can spiral out of control, forcing detours down dark secret pathways in our psyches that we never dreamed existed. And the intentions paving the byways to these personal hellscapes transcend simple notions of good or bad.

Dana (Jenny Slate) lives with her fiancé Ben (Jay Duplass), a boring yet utterly dependable fellow who complements her quite nicely. To be honest, Dana longs to be edgy and dangerous, one of those independent, free-spirited types, but she’s saddled with too much neurotic guilt to ever make a real go at stepping outside the box. Her sister Ali (Abby Quinn) has a bit more potential when it comes to seizing the moment. She’s quick to enjoy the freedom granted to her by their parents, Alan (John Turturro) and Pat (Edie Falco), to curse. Ali’s sassy without drawing attention to herself.

Dana and Ali represent the low-hanging fruit set to fall right at the base of the family tree. Dana reflect much of Alan’s aspiration sense of himself. He grinds away as a copywriter by day, but longs to break free via unpublished narratives and lusty romantic odes to his mistress. Ali’s sharp tongue stems from her mother’s obvious inability to suffer foolishness from those around her – especially the hopeless dreamer in the bed next to her.

These four engage in an unchoreographed dance, competing for space on a confined stage. The emotional chaos results from an inability to see and hear each other to recognize their shared failings. At its core, “Landline” spotlights their failure to communicate, even when forced to reside under the same roof. Who needs a telephone, old school or a smart new device, when all you have to do is stand face-to-face and dare to speak your truth?

Through technology, the daughters discover their father’s unfaithfulness, and Dana embarks on her own reckless assignation, searching for a cheap thrill that might prove there’s more to life. Ali steps out more as well, defying house rules (because she sees that her parents no longer adhere to any meaningful social or familial guidelines) and risking jail in pursuit of an escape through drugs and sex.

It should be noted, though, that for all their transgressive actions, nothing that any member of this family does truly crosses over into dark irredeemable territory. The strains and fractures that appear are never so dire as to be beyond mending. We see (and wish they could) dyads form, and in their wake, opportunities for character growth. And communication is the key.

Alan and Pat need to talk. The sisters stumble into setting an example, and Dana learns the lesson well enough to reach out to Ben, coming clean about her own infidelities. And while honesty may be the best policy, it challenges the old adage about forgiving and forgetting. Every relationship addresses those tough ideas differently. When communication lines reopen, even the hardest hearts and heads soften.