Divorce isn’t usually funny, but with their new movie Landline, director Gillian Robespierre and her co-writer Elisabeth Holm found something to laugh about. The indie film tells the story of two sisters, played by Jenny Slate and newcomer Abby Quinn, who discover their dad (John Turturro) is having an affair. Yet the movie isn't all dark, and Kramer vs. Kramer this ain’t. Instead, Landline, in theaters July 21, is a hilarious, heartwarming, and hopeful film that shows how a family’s sudden unraveling might sometimes be the key to keeping it together.
“We wanted to tell a divorce story that didn’t end in tragedy that had some hopefulness to it,” Robespierre says over the phone, with Holm sitting by her side. “And I think we really like telling those kinds of stories where people make a lot of mistakes, but then they figure out a way to find each other in the end.”
Both women, who were behind the 2014 sleeper hit Obvious Child, also starring Slate, say their latest project was inspired by their own parents' divorces in the '90s. The situations actually ended up bringing their families closer, with the then-teens seeing their mothers as "these very strong and vulnerable and funny humans" for the first time, Robespierre says. A similar thing happens in Landline, where Alan's cheating forces the women in his family to look inward. Slate’s prim and proper and oh so bored Dana, Quinn’s wild child Ali, and Edie Falco’s fed-up matriarch Pat realize that they’re trapped in designated roles, and so they use their father's affair as an escape to make some necessary changes to their lives.
That's not to say they do so without also making some big mistakes, though. As Robespierre tells me, “perfection is boring and it’s not realistic.” People aren’t good or bad, they’re complex, which is why Slate’s Dana isn’t a villain because she cheats on her fiancé (a very sweet Jay Duplass). She makes a mistake, just like her dad, and while she's forced to deal with the fallout, she isn't ostracized for it.
“I think we often vilify women, especially when they lie. And we had a clear intention where we didn’t want [Dana's] mistakes to be permanent,” Robespierre says. “I don’t think mistakes are permanent. There are ways to grow and learn from everything we do.” She takes a dramatic pause and begins to laugh: “Except murder. Put that in bold.”
There may not be any murder in this film, but there is a lot to be learned from each of these characters figuring out how they want to love and be loved in light of their family bombshell. It’s something Holm, who wrote Landline the summer before she got married, says she also learned after her mom and dad separated. “Divorce impacted the way we’ve all grown up to think about love and monogamy and marriage and all the ways it is deeply imperfect and often impossible," she explains.
Landline fearlessly shows the messy side of love, reminding us all that if you ignore the tough moments, you dismiss how difficult it is to keep a loving relationship going. It’s the side of romance that doesn’t often make the movies, because it ruins the notion of a happily ever after. But it also sets up unrealistic expectations that love is easy, when it's really hard work. That’s why Robespierre and Holm are fine smashing those rose-colored glasses to show that a failed relationship doesn’t make you a failure — it makes you human.
“If we can show women and men having these human experiences, good and bad and odd and confusing, and showing things where nothing is black and white. Where there is no clear right decision,” Robespierre says, “then we can hopefully make people feel a little less alone and make people know that they’re going to be OK.”
One day, people who have been affected by divorce may even realize it's OK to laugh — something Robespierre and Holm, with their new film, clearly encourage.