Ren Zelen spent last weekend at Sundance: London film festival. Here's what she thought of Sian Heder's Tallulah...|
by R.H. Zelen, published on June 11, 2016 - 8:34 PM
Tallulah is Orange Is the New Black writer Sian Heder’s deeply felt writing/directing debut. The movie reunites Juno actresses Ellen Page and Allison Janney, once again playing daughter and mother figures.
Here Ellen Page plays Tallulah, a free-spirited young woman living a hand-to-mouth life out of a van with her boyfriend, Nico. Lu has the unlikely dream of travelling to India, while the more realistic Nico wants to start a family and reconnect with his estranged mother in New York.
The pair argue and Lu tells Nico to leave if he doesn’t approve of the way she lives her life. When she wakes up to find him gone, she heads to New York in search of answers. She finds her way to Nico’s estranged mother, a writer named Margo (Allison Janney) and ambushes her at her sprawling university-funded apartment, but is given short shrift.
Later, Lu illicitly enters a high-class hotel and begins to roam the corridors in search of leftover room-service food. A ditzy rich floozy ushers her into her suite, assuming Lu is a maid. The room is in shambles, with a baby girl left roaming naked throughout the space, regardless of the dangers of open windows or fragile objects.
The woman, Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) confesses that she has never before been left alone with her child, having always left her in the care of nannies. She was forced bring the toddler along alone as she is in town to have an affair and could not risk any nanny being present and then informing her husband.
She is desperate for a baby sitter and offers Tallulah a great deal of money to look after the toddler while she is out. It is obvious that Carolyn has no idea how to look after her child, nor any desire to do so.
When Carolyn arrives back the next morning, drunk and disappointed, she merely passes out on the bed. Loath to leave the baby unsupervised with this unfit and indifferent mother, Tallulah impulsively absconds with the baby.
Unsure where else to go, Lu returns to the doorstep of her boyfriend's mother, and lies that the baby belongs to her and Nico and that Margo is the grandmother.
Dishonest as the circumstances may be, Tallulah's, Margo's, and the baby's bond is real, and they gradually form an odd-couple connection. Meanwhile, a frantic Carolyn enlists the help of the police in finding her child, but the social services and police officers soon become aware of the mother’s instability and incompetence.
In Tallulah, Sian Heder elicits superb performances from her lead actresses: Allison Janney, Ellen Page and a stunning Tammy Blanchard. Page and Janney have a natural rapport, a mother-daughter chemistry that's funny and touching; even though we know it is built on a lie. Page maintains an appealing quality that allows us to forgive Tallulah’s impulsive and destructive tendencies. Janney lends a heart-rending quality to Margo, a woman reeling from the confusion of losing both her husband and her son.
As the film progresses, Heder wisely allows the women to grow more complex – Blanchard’s Carolyn undergoes revelations about her own nature and background that subverts our expectations and shows her as not as simply a ‘bad mother’. Not one character in this movie is treated as a mere stereotype.
Heder has succeeded in writing complex, richly realised characters. She has created a compelling and poignant trio of very different women whose paths collide and who become entangled, frustrated, but ultimately elevated by their relationships, and the bonds and responsibilities of family and motherhood. These are the kinds of roles that women in mainstream cinema are crying out for, but rarely find.
With surprising dashes of magical realism, calm direction and fluid film-making, Sian Heder has crafted a poignant film that's both sad and uplifting - a rueful look at the risks and gains found in our relationships with others and how these can change us. Beautifully acted and sensitively written, Heder's film is a bittersweet pleasure.