Better Than Hot Bread and Butter

Neither of Gillian Robespierre’s features—Obvious Child and Landline—is a food movie in a traditional sense. There are no languid shots of serving bowls passing between characters’ hands, no technically impressive sequences of protagonists preparing meals with precision and/or affection, no dialogue that articulates the personal or relational significance of a particular meal. Her characters eat the way real human people eat, their meals fitting somewhere between social activity and survival tactic. Maybe multitasking is a more accurate way to think about it: eating is something they have to do, so they might as well enjoy someone else’s company while they do it.

The meals in Obvious Child and Landline represent food in both its most exceptional and most mundane forms. They are not extravagant as dining experiences, but they are meaningful as relational ones: Small, comforting rituals that provide a moment of constancy amidst chaos. Both movies hinge on meal scenes, using moments of characters dining together not only to articulate growth and change in their relationships to one another, but also in their characters’ relationships to growth and change in general. These scenes romanticize the tiny routines that build upon themselves to create a relationship, a career, a life, a family—and they articulate a fantasy that stability is possible, even for those of us growing up in unsteady families and unsteady times, and who feel damaged, or floundering, or unlovable as a result.

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Obvious Child drew comparisons to Nora Ephron’s work upon release, and those comparisons were neither necessarily wrong nor inaccurate. But there’s also more than a little bit of an early James L. Brooks influence here. It reveals itself in how Robespierre lets her characters exist as flawed people in flawed relationships—not in big, dramatic confrontations but in ostensibly dull, routine moments—and how she lets choices that seem insignificant drive the plot forward.

In the film, aspiring New York City stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) performs a weeknight set in a cramped, dark club, then gets dumped by her longtime boyfriend in its graffiti-covered bathroom. The next morning, she finds out that the bookstore where she works is shutting down, unable to generate enough profits to cover rent in Manhattan. Spiraling out, she has a drunken one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) that results in an unplanned pregnancy and a Valentine’s Day abortion. Getting dumped devastates Donna’s sense of self-worth, but she seems to hate the breakup more for disrupting her routine than anything else. It’s not that she loves her ex; it’s that he’s a stable fixture in her life.

Donna functions like an actual person trying to make a creative career happen—and like a real millennial whose only certainty about the future is that she’ll have debt, rather than the trust-funded, hedonistic figments of op-ed writers’ imaginations. She thrives on normalcy and routine: she goes to work at the bookstore, performs stand-up at the same place (“It’s a habit,” she explains to Max on the night they meet), calls her parents regularly, hangs out with one of her two friends—sometimes both. When her boss says, “Change is good,” she replies, “That’s, like, the rudest thing you’ve ever said to me.” And food is, if not a foundational part of that normalcy, then foundational to the way the film articulates Donna’s relationship to stability and change.

Obvious Child (2014) | A24
A24

Early in the movie—after learning of the bookstore’s closure but before her fateful one-night stand—Donna eats dinner at her father’s (Richard Kind) apartment, gorging on spaghetti smothered in her “favorite sauce,” marinara, as he doles out paternal advice. He is empathetic, clearly—he feeds her a comforting, starchy meal; he listens to her fear and sadness—but he’s also only willing to accommodate her self-pity to a point. He tries to convince her of the creative power of change, reminding her that his own best work came out of some of the most unstable phases of his life. Donna cannot absorb this concept into her own life paradigm. She insists that his TV writing career has nothing in common with her solo stand-up gigs, then tries to divert his attention elsewhere by playing with her food. Noodles dangling from her mouth, she crosses her eyes and asks if she’s still beautiful, and he indulges her with a bit of laughter before nagging her to return her mother’s phone calls.

The film cuts suddenly to Donna in her mother’s (Polly Draper) apartment, studiously pulling noodles out of a bowl with chopsticks—a cut so quick that it feels like the same night, like Donna has somehow gotten herself caught up in back-to-back dinners that have nothing in common beyond being noodle-based. Where Donna and her father ate with enthusiasm, savoring each other’s company even as they argued with one another, she and her university professor mother eat politely as they discuss pragmatic details of how Donna can keep her head above water financially. With the messy, easy first dinner—a dinner she has eaten hundreds of times—as a point of comparison, we feel all the effort and labor involved in the second, all the energy she devotes to eating neatly with her chopsticks, asserting herself credibly in the conversation.

The parallels and divergences between these meals help you understand how Donna became the adult she did. Of course being pulled between these two disparate ways of navigating the world would make you obsess over finding steady footing. In a simpler movie, Donna’s Type-A mother would be fixated upon her daughter finding stability while her creative father would encourage her to embrace chaos. But her father sees change as something to survive—something that may change you and your art for the better, but something to get through nonetheless—while her mother approaches instability as life’s only constant. “I know you’re going through some pain right now,” she tells Donna over their dinner, “But you’re always going to be going through something.”

She’s not wrong, of course—but part of the charm of Obvious Child is that it lets us believe she is, at least for the nearly 90 minutes we’re allowed to cozy up within its universe. It commits fully to the fantasy of constancy: Donna’s one-night-stand disrupts her life briefly, but she couldn’t have picked a less disruptive person to stumble into bed with. Max is dependable; he calls her and drops by her work at regular intervals, checking in to see if she’d like to grab a bite to eat every time they talk. After a few declined invites (borne not of disinterest but of her anxiety over whether to tell him about her pending abortion), Donna takes Max to her favorite restaurant, an aggressively uncool Italian place near her work. There are overstuffed bread baskets and cheesy murals, and Donna and Max are the youngest people present by several decades. She jokes that she likes it because “it’s, like, the one place I can go and wear my diaper and feel that I fit in,” but it’s really all about the chicken piccata. It’s her favorite dish; it fulfills her expectations every time, and the waiter is intimately familiar with her fondness for it.

She orders the dish for herself and for Max, and while it feels like an act of pure, unbridled enthusiasm, there’s a little bit of a test buried within it: you know that if he doesn’t love it as much as she does, she will write him off as a potential serious romantic partner. But, before the main course even arrives, Max passes Donna’s stability test a little too well. They dig into the bread basket, Max declaring, “There’s nothing better than some hot bread and butter,” then warms up a pat of butter in his hands and passes it to Donna with a smile that is somehow simultaneously self-assured and bashful. She is stunned by his sweetness, her voice cracking as she tries to keep from giving away how much she likes this—how much she likes him. Then, as she spreads the warm butter across a roll, he studies the geriatric couples seated at the other tables and explains that he can’t wait to be a grandfather someday.

This confession sends Donna running straight into a wall of anxiety, wandering into the bathroom to talk herself down in the mirror. But it’s not the anxiety that comes with unstable circumstances, with having no idea what comes next; it’s the anxiety that comes with knowing exactly where things are headed. While the grandfatherly aspirations send Donna over the edge, the warm butter gets me every time I watch this movie. It’s one of the most romantic things I’ve ever seen on screen—an act of chivalry borne not from retrograde gender norms and a desire to appear good, but from a singular, strange sense of what it means to be kind and a willingness to be vulnerable in expressing that kindness. And it’s the height of the movie’s fantasy of stability, the exact emotional opposite of getting dumped in a dive bar bathroom and then laid off the next day. What could be better than finding someone who will change your life but not that much, who will bring you stability without forcing you to give up the routines and rituals you’ve already built on your own? What could be more perfect than a relationship built on a shared appreciation for the same unimpressive but reliable things?

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Landline (2017) | Amazon
Amazon

I understand, in my critical brain, that Landline is not as narratively well-constructed as Obvious Child. It’s not as funny and its plotlines are oddly paced; it flattens the connections between its nostalgia for the aesthetics of the ‘90s and its characters’ attempts to access their own past selves. But I also know that if it had existed when I was younger sister Ali’s (Abby Quinn) age, I would have watched it—and this is a conservative estimate—200 times over the course of the year that my own parents got divorced. It’s one of the only divorce movies that’s really a child-of-divorce movie, and it pulls this off most effectively in the spaces in which it shares Obvious Child’s obsession with how we situate ourselves in the timelines of our lives once they’ve ceased to match up with the ones we imagined for ourselves, how we struggle to find a compromise between our desire for change and our need for stability.

The film follows a surname-less Manhattan family over the course of one mid-’90s autumn in which the marriage of parents Alan and Pat (John Turturro and Edie Falco, both of whom are god-tier in the “if you could pick your parents” game) falls apart and older daughter Dana (Jenny Slate, again) falters in her engagement to Ben (Jay Duplass). Both these relationships crumble as a result of infidelities; both these infidelities are simultaneously acts of revolt against the routine of monogamy and acts of regression. Dana sleeps with Nate (Finn Wittrock), a college friend with whom she used to get high and hook up, then moves back into her childhood bedroom to avoid facing Ben. Alan’s mistress looks like his wife but is unburdened by the resentments that have accrued through decades of monogamy and child-rearing and bill-paying.

At the same time, Pat and Ali refuse to look anywhere but forward. Pat spends her days working for climate policy and her nights and weekends obsessing over the details of Ali’s grades and college applications; Ali is desperate to be an adult, but only insofar as adulthood would allow her to be released from parental supervision. She wants nothing to do with routine or responsibility—least of all the responsibility of finding her father’s folder full of poems about his mistress on the family’s shared desktop Macintosh.

Dana is ostensibly the protagonist, and Alan and Pat’s looming divorce seems to be the film’s central conflict. But the first of two pivotal dinner scenes makes clear that the real emotional core of the movie is the tension between the father and the youngest daughter. About halfway through the film, Dana, Ali, and Alan eat dinner in a crowded, lively teppanyaki restaurant after a reading of Alan’s in-progress play, loosely based on their family and hosted at his mistress’s apartment. This is, in another parallel to Obvious Child, Dana and Ali’s second meal of the evening; they spend most of the reading milling around the hors d’oeuvres spread while trying to gather intel. It’s also obvious they are regulars at the teppanyaki spot in much the same way that Donna Stern is at her neighborhood Italian joint, and that the restaurant carries some kind of familial significance, though the exact contours of that significance are never explicitly articulated.

By the time they sit down at the restaurant, Ali is enraged and without appetite, and Dana is enthusiastically drunk, slurping down an additional cocktail from a ceramic cat mug and diving into her food. Alan tries to put all his charms on display. He belts “Happy Birthday” with a neighboring table; he convinces the chef to toss shrimp that he tries to catch in his mouth. Ali refuses to make eye contact with him, disgusted by how pleased he seems with himself after the evening he has just put their family through. It’s hard to find fault in her surliness; who would be excited to share dinner with a father who just collaborated with his mistress to stage a surreal reenactment of his current family drama in front of his wife and daughters?

Landline | Amazon Studios

But it’s also hard not to feel a little bad for Alan, who is oblivious to the fact that his daughters know of his affair and yet burdened by guilt nonetheless. Of course he’s not trying to charm the entire restaurant—he’s just trying to charm Ali, mistaking her deep, justified anger for standard-issue teenage embarrassment. When she excuses herself from the meal, her face blank except for a scowl, he pivots into an earnest, tipsy conversation with Dana about the work involved in committed relationships, but it feels like a receptacle for all the unreciprocated paternal energy he keeps trying to direct toward Ali.

“We’re too old for this place,” Ali declares when she gets up from the grill table. But she means something more complicated than that, of course; she means that she’s both too young to be in this situation and old enough to recognize that Alan is performing the dad role in a family-dinner-tradition play while failing, fundamentally, to be her father. In fact, she still loves the restaurant, choosing to hold her birthday dinner there in the movie’s final scene. Sitting  around the grill table with her mom and a newly-reunited Dana and Ben, she savors an illicit ceramic cat mug cocktail that Pat has permitted her as a birthday gift.

As the four of them talk animatedly, the dinner seems like a valiant effort to reconstruct an old tradition with a reconstructed family, with Ben taking on the affable role Alan once held. But when Alan walks in and claims the empty seat, it’s clear that this is a tradition continuing forward as it once was, just with one significant change that no one is quite sure how to accommodate: Alan and Pat are still parents, but they’re no longer partners. Though Alan projects humility, his head bowed because he understands exactly how lucky he is to have been invited at all, the conversation freezes nonetheless. That sudden halt—that moment it takes your lizard brain to reconcile the family you grew up in with the family you have now—is such an accurate depiction of what it’s like to have your freshly-divorced parents in the same room that it makes me wish I could unzip my skin and climb out of it.

When the chef reaches the grill, however, time begins to move forward again. The five diners chat about their orders and their (possibly fabricated, certainly exaggerated) food allergies, all their sentences running over each other’s. You could read their unthawing cynically, of course. You could believe they are performing the act of being a loving family for an audience of one; you could extrapolate this performance and Alan’s earlier one into an understanding that all the restaurant has ever been is a space in which they perform being a loving family.

But I can’t help but be a little sentimental about the whole thing, even though I should know better. I’d like to believe that it confirms that a comfort meal works, that the right combination of food and people can return us to the feeling of living in an idealized, unconflicted past. It’s a belief as fantastical as the possibility that your segmented family can still move as a cohesive whole, that your one-night-stand will reenter your life and soften your butter pat with the heat from his palms. But as far as fantasies go, comfort food is a fairly grounded one. It does not require that food be luxurious; it doesn’t even require that food be good. It just requires that we commit to the belief that something can be known and reliable—even if it’s only reliable, like our families and relationships often are, in the sense that it’s fucked up in the same way over and over again. It requires that we understand that dependability is a good in its own right, that we understand how lucky we are that food can give us access to the boring and the mundane.