TALLULAH screened as a part of the U.S. Dramatic category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. For more information, head here.
The world can be a pretty scary place, but we can all find comfort in the joy that is Ellen Page and Allison Janney acting together in a film. Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t even have to be a good film, but lucky for us writer/director Siân Heder goes above and beyond with her film Tallulah. Not only do we get a glorious Page/Janney partnership, but it’s wrapped up in this gem of a film. Bless you, Siân.
Tallulah is your typical, age-old story of “girl sees baby, girl worries about baby’s safety with crazy mum, girl steals baby, girl takes baby to ex-boyfriend’s mum’s house.” Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Once I’ve seen one ‘girl sees baby, girl worries about baby’s safety with crazy mum, girl steals baby, girl takes baby to ex-boyfriend’s mum’s house’ movie, I’ve seen them all,” but this one is special. Promise.
Lu (Page) is a drifter with no desire to be tied down anywhere. She lives in her van with her boyfriend, Nico, and they survive by stealing and dumpster-diving. Lu wants to go to India (they’ll drive, obviously), but after having a fight with Nico and waking up to find him gone, she sets off to his hometown of NYC to find him. Lu goes to a hotel for breakfast (read: to steal breakfast) and accidentally meets a mess of a woman named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard). Carolyn mistakens Lu for hotel staff (impressive considering how unkempt Lu looked) and more or less shoves her naked toddler at her so she can go have a night on the town.
Despite Lu insisting she knows nothing about kids, she and Madison hit it off, much like any toddler would with an adult finally paying her attention. In a moment of worry for Madison’s safety, Lu takes her, almost immediately realizes she is in over her head (changing a baby in a public bathroom will do that to a person), and goes to the only person she can think of for help: Nico’s mum, Margo (Janney). Lu tells Margo the baby is hers and Nico’s and even renames her Maggie (after Margo) to really sell it. It works, if only partially because Margo feels guilty that she hasn’t seen her son in almost two years. Eventually Lu and Margo start to bond and they even have a crafternoon, aww.
The story leans on the side of incredulousness and there are a few moments that seemed a little too overly convenient for me, but all of that can be forgiven because Page and Janney are absolutely amazing in this film. (Can they be contractually obligated to always act together from now on?) Their characters are developed and believable and Heder wrote them funny, honest dialogue that they deliver with pitch perfectness.
Page’s Lu is determined to be a free spirit and struggles with wanting to protect Maggie, but also get the eff out of there. Janney is going through shit of her own, but is wanting to connect with someone she assumes is now a family member. Meanwhile, Carolyn is desperately looking for Maggie—er, Madison—and dealing with harsh judgement from the police. And a social worker. And her husband. Pretty much everybody because, come on. Each of these characters could easily be parodies but they’re revealed to be more interesting and complicated as the story progresses.
The film may be called Tallulah, but it is just as much Margo and Carolyn’s stories as well. In the Q&A, Heder explained that motherhood is a complicated thing, a sentiment that is simultaneously the joy and burden that propels the story along. Motherhood, and family, is something that grounds us and gives us a connection to someone else, but what if we’d rather just float away and not be attached to anything? Lu, Margo and Carolyn grapple with this thought and the guilt associated with it.
The cinematography is lovely and clean and seamlessly gives way to a few brief fantasy sequences—manifestations of Lu and Margo’s emotional states. That may sound incredulous too but, trust, it works, which is another testament to Heder’s strong direction and vision.
Tallulah is that kind of rare film: a straightforward dramatic storyline with the well-placed laughs that also unexpectedly gets under your skin. Because you can’t help but wonder: would you take someone else’s baby if you thought you could do better?
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.