Jenny Slate’s laughter comes out in a wild gush, as though she’s been shaken and uncorked, the sound somehow puppyishly sweet and punkishly impolite. Her characters, cheery cynics, often fail to quite match the mood of a room, so their amused eruptions can hurt feelings, stir bafflement, inspire the ol’ stinkeye from the stiffs worth laughing at. In Landline, Gillian Robespierre’s warm yet prickly comedy of sisters testing the limits of what life will allow them, Slate’s uncertain Dana shakes off her jitters about her engagement to a drab fiancé (Jay Duplass) by smoking a joint with a foxy alpha (Finn Wittrock) she used to hook up with in college.
It’s 1995, and they’re at a dead-serious drone-guitar performance in a dingy Lower Manhattan club. Almost immediately, Dana’s joyous cackles — plus her jokes and belches and thoughts about the tightness of Helen Hunt’s Mad About You pants — prove too much for the venue. She’s just relishing being herself, but she’s (hilariously) in the wrong place to do so. Much of the film asks whether this world offers a right place for women like Dana and her teenage sister, Ali (superb newcomer Abby Quinn), to be their truest selves — whether they’re always going to be too noisy, too opinionated, too open about wanting more.
The sisters’ relationship, as the film opens, is caustic and combative. In the car, heading back from a family trip to the country, Ali, a high school senior, points out a semen stain on Dana's fiancé's pants. They’re at odds but actually fighting the same battle. Both Dana and Ali are shaken by the options life seems to offer them, Manhattanites whose parents have a country house. Get a job and toss yourself into marriages? They suspect their father (John Turturro) of adultery and their mother (Edie Falco) of ignorance and passionlessness.
Ali plucks out fierce parodies on a guitar, echoing mid-’90s Brooklyn folk-punk, but she seems relaxed — seems free — only when she and Dana are laughing together on their own in that country house. When the sisters turn up there independently of each other, seeking refuge from the complications of home, they fight at first, each craving privacy. But soon they're drunk and dancing, liberated in each other’s presence, goading each other into being — even confessing their secrets.
That happens early in this richly detailed, often moving film; it’s less a slice of life than a free-spirited blurt of it. What follows is, to borrow the word Dana uses to describe her life, “flailing,” but of a romantic sort: The love story here is of the sisters discovering that one can give love and that one deserves it back — even when one wakes up hungover, with vomit caked on her pillow. The sisters try out selves, experiment with sex and drugs, worry over whether to tell their mother about their father, and, when nothing much is happening, do what we all do: soak in their present, uncertain how much they’re shaped by it and how much they’re its actual shapers. Few period pieces get our dynamic relationship with the now so right, or chart so smartly how the present shifts even under the feet of the youngish. Past 25, Dana is already secretly behind the moment, preferring 10,000 Maniacs to her sister’s favorites, Hole and PJ Harvey.
Not much happens, and everything happens, including hookups and dustups, pained truth-telling and peace-saving lies. Robespierre’s film, abundant in pleasures and insights, is more varied and confident than her debut, 2014’s Obvious Child. On occasion, the joyous raunch clashes with the truth-telling, and the light ’90s nostalgia sometimes detracts from the emotional urgency. The story moves in awkward fits and starts — but so do people. Especially the generation the film depicts, represented here by a confused teen terrified of commitment and a dissatisfied laugher too smart to make speeches about the Way Things Are, the way those dopes did in Reality Bites.