It’s been about a week since The Seattle International Film Festival came to a close, and much like every year, it seemed to go by far too quickly for me to see as many films as I would’ve liked. But that said, I still feel pretty good about my festival experience this year, since the two films I did choose to see, Landline and A Ghost Story, are pretty darn good. Granted, they’re a bit more mainstream, Hollywood-ish affairs than an audience-fueled film festival like SIFF caters to. But they’re still reminders of the unique voices American independent film still has to offer, and I’m guessing both will be in proper theaters in about a month or so.
I’ll start with the more conventional of the two, Landline, which sees a reteaming of director Gillian Robespierre and star Jenny Slate, who collaborated previously on 2015’s indie breakout Obvious Child. Landline centers on a middle class family living in New York City in 1995, in which the patriarch of the family (John Turturro) has been found to be having an affair, which Slate’s character Dana and her sister Ali (played by Abby Quinn) struggle to deal with. Eventually, this non-so-coincidentally parallels with Dana cheating on her fiancé (Jay Duplass) with a cute ’90s douche, while Ali gets further entrenched in drug-related teenage shenanigans.
Now, from that description, this probably sounds like familiar material, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I think the biggest crutch this movie has is that it belongs to the ever crowded “dysfunctional family indie dramedy” genre. And the fact that it’s about a New York family in the not-too-distant past, and features a failed literary type as the dad and a mom played by an actress from a short-lived Showtime series as the mom, can’t help but reek of The Squid And The Whale.
But I really like the way the film explores the duality of Dana cheating on her fiancé while her father simultaneously screws around while having something better right in front of him. Granted, using the word “duality” makes it sound like these are the only two intertwining plotlines going on in Landline, and to film’s benefit, the storytelling is a little messier than that.
Also, Landline is just flat out funnier than most of the notable entries in this genre, as Slate once again is great at playing a woman flailing her way through adulthood in a way that’s both funny and kind of heartbreaking. Additionally, this might be the first ’90s period piece that seems to capture that era in a truly specific way, and so this movie has just enough going for it to potentially be the sleeper comedy of the summer. Even if that may be more of a product of the dearth of great comedies to come out these past few summers.
Fortunately, A Ghost Story doesn’t have the problem of overfamiliarity, since I’m not sure that I’ve seen anything else quite like it. Which feels like a nice step forward for director David Lowery, as his last small budget film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (which I saw at SIFF 2013), felt a little too indebted to Terrence Malick to truly stand out. And while I suppose you could say A Ghost Story does explore the same kind of existential territory as The Tree Of Life, tonally and in terms of plotting, it feels like it’s in a class all its own.
A Ghost Story begins by centering on an unnamed couple, referred to only in the credits as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara), who are living together in a small, quiet house in the sticks together. C then dies in a car accident, while M is left to grieve and pick up the pieces where her life goes next. However, C is reborn as a ghostly figure cast in the easily recognizable childhood image of a guy wearing a sheet over his head, and is left to haunt the house that he once lived in, seemingly for the rest of eternity.
From the plot description I just gave, it probably doesn’t sound like there could be a lot of conflict in a story that centers completely on a guy who’s a ghost and is pretty much helpless against the fact that he’s a ghost. And you’d be right. The early parts of this movie especially are paced very deliberately, which climaxes in what film geeks this year will most likely refer to as “the pie scene” – in which we get one almost unbroken shot of a grief-stricken Rooney Mara eating an entire pie, while her ghostly husband watches on.
And I’m sure this film will be a bit of a divisive one, due to it’s unconventional pacing, though I feel like it earns it, since the film is clearly trying to convey the fact that being a ghost would probably be painfully mundane. Which is a strange thing to explore – the fact that this movie depicts “a ghost’s life” with a sense of realism and emotional truth. After all, ghosts are fantastical beings in which any rules or mythology we have in place for them is purely speculation.
Though it’s that mix of indulging both the unknown realities of the afterlife and what happens to us while we’re still here on earth (but without ever feeling too overbearing) that makes the film work. I think the idea this film clings to the most is that we as humans are impermanent, and we’re all just dots in the grand scheme of things. Which is both kind of a depressing thing to confront, but also kind of freeing as well. I suppose it just depends on what baggage (or ghosts) you take in to the theater with you.