The annals of film history are lined with narratives about dissatisfied men, their existential crises, and the women who become casualties on their path to self-discovery. Male characters are permitted to pursue personal growth at the expense of the women in their lives and remain sympathetic, yet the script isn’t often flipped. And when it is, mainstream audiences don’t seem to respond well: See the box-office fate of 2018’s Annihilation and Landline, two critically acclaimed films about infidelity.
In Landline, Gillian Robespierre offers up a complex portrait of a tight-knit family circa 1995 (fittingly, the year of the Bill Clinton scandal). She centers her narrative around Dana Jacobs, an early-30-something New Yorker who’s having doubts about her engagement. It’s established up front that Dana’s relationship with her fiancé Ben has a brother-sister vibe to it—they’re very comfortable and compatible, but the spark has dimmed and they struggle to discuss the growing void between them.
(This may have hit close to home for my long-term partner and me when we saw the film right after moving back to LA together…)
When Dana’s college fling resurfaces—very Sean Hunter, complete with bad-boy vibes and perfectly parted ’90s bangs—it’s not hard to understand the appeal, even if we root for her to resist the temptation. That’s due to Jenny Slate’s warm, relatable portrayal of a woman who panics as she suddenly recognizes the gulf between the life she’s fallen into and the life she envisioned for herself. She finds sneaking around to be exhilarating at first, but she’s forced to confront the gravity of her situation when she and her younger sister discover evidence that their father has been carrying on a long-term affair of his own.
The hopeful (but appropriately tentative) ending Robespierre crafts for Dana and Ben is one that’s rarely seen on screen, and one that serves as a foil for the more finite dissolution of Dana’s parents’ marriage. The final scene—in which the family comes together to help Dana’s sister celebrate her last birthday at home—feels like the start of a whole new chapter in the best way: There’s sadness, sure, but the possibility of what lies ahead feels exciting.
Virginia Yapp is a Los Angeles–based writer-editor whose work has appeared in publications like LAist, Who What Wear, MyDomaine, Byrdie, Slackerwood, Austin360.com and The Austin American-Statesman. She also celebrates women’s contributions to film and television on her website, The Celluloid Void.