The new dramedy “Landline” takes place in 1995, which looks — to our modern eyes — like a simpler time: No text messages to respond to, no Facebook posts to like, no emails piling up. Instead, we get people slotting coins into a pay phone and checking their answering-machine messages or taking road trips and actually talking, because what else is there to do?
At its core, “Landline” is a movie about communication. The story about a New York family navigating a rocky period is about the ways people connect or don’t, which is hard enough to explore without introducing newer technology into the quagmire of interpersonal relationships, according to the movie’s co-writer Elisabeth Holm.
“We really didn’t want it to be a story of cellphones and text messages and reading — looking at somebody’s Facebook photos,” she said. “We wanted it to be about people actually having to talk to each other.”
Remember when we were forced to do that?
Holm and her co-writer, director Gillian Robespierre, do. Both New York natives in their 30s, the women have fond memories of growing up in a big city at the end of the last millennium.
The two women also worked together on the sleeper hit “Obvious Child,” which launched the film career of its lead, Jenny Slate. Slate also stars in “Landline,” as Dana, an adrift 20-something who hates her job and isn’t sure she wants to marry her fiance (Jay Duplass). Meanwhile, she has to deal with tensions boiling over in her childhood home, where her nitpicking mother Pat (Edie Falco) and schlubby dad Alan (John Turturro) bicker over why high schooler Ali (Abby Quinn) is acting out. As it turns out, just about everyone is keeping a secret from someone else, and no one ever says what they truly mean.
So maybe simpler times weren’t that simple after all.
Still, Quinn, who was born a year after the movie takes place, has a certain wistfulness about what a technology-free childhood might have looked like. She got her first cellphone in middle school.
“As an adult, I’ve always had [a cellphone], which is a bit of a bummer,” she said, when she, Holm and Robespierre were in Washington for a screening last month. “I kind of wish I’d had some part of my adulthood or my teenagehood not having that and just being able to experience what life would be like not knowing where everyone else is — and also not having the desire to tell people where I am or what I’m doing.”
Of course, technology isn’t all bad. Robespierre, for her part, loves being able to get in touch with the babysitter at any moment and, “I really like maps at all times,” she said. But there are obvious drawbacks, not the least of which is how addictive our little devices can be.
“My whole childhood wasn’t lived on the Internet,” Holm said. “I didn’t see other people [posting about] birthday parties or gloat about a new pair of shoes. Whatever happens was all behind closed doors.”
The worst thing you could do, she said, was conference call a friend with a third person secretly muted on the line.
“We got to be free in so many ways,” Holm said.
Added Robespierre: “The big thing was if you made plans to meet on that corner, you better be on that corner, or else.”
The time period was a good excuse to inject some of the women’s fond memories into the movie, though they carefully avoided making the touchstones too over the top. There’s no “slap bracelet moment,” Robespierre assured.
But there are eyebrow rings: Dana’s self-destruction manifests itself as an infected piercing. Meanwhile, characters smoke indoors, dress up as the California Raisins for Halloween and reference “Mad About You.” Dana rocks out at a music store listening station. (Robespierre shot that bit at an old haunt, Other Music in the East Village, which closed up shop shortly after she filmed the scene.)
At another point, Ali goes to a rave much like the ones Robespierre used to occasionally frequent. Doing research for the movie, she realized how faulty her memories of the parties were.
“I thought I was sneaking into this club with a fake ID or I was cool enough to be picked from the crowd,” she said. In fact, the raves were all-ages and booze-free.
For the most part, the movie keeps the references understated, although there is one conspicuous exception.
In one scene, Pat watches the news and sees first lady Hillary Clinton giving a speech in a pink suit. The next day, Pat shows up at work wearing a remarkably similar get-up. When she was making the movie, Robespierre assumed the moment would get a few chuckles once Clinton was president. Instead, when the movie screened for the first time at Sundance, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the reaction was more muted.
“We thought that people would just clap or start erupting in laughter,” Robespierre said. “And the laughter is still there but then it dies down — it’s a heavy moment.”
For Robespierre, it wasn’t just the ‘90s that were simpler times.