Ellen Page and Allison Janney star in a funny, unemotional Juno reunion|
by Tristram Fane Saunders, published on August 3, 2016 - 6:00 PM
Tallulah, the feature debut from Orange is the New Black writer Sian Heder, is an interesting character-led comedy, trapped inside an unoriginal issues-led drama.
It’s almost a decade since Ellen Page found her breakthrough role as a young surrogate mother in Juno (supported by Allison Janney as her stepmother). Tallulah is the mirror-image of that film: rather than giving a baby away, here Page abducts one, again finding maternal support from Janney.
Tallulah (Page) lives in a cluttered van with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit). Travelling the country on his mother’s credit cards, they spend their days stealing, drinking and scrounging for leftover food. When Nico walks out after an argument, Tallulah heads to New York City to track him down. There, a mix-up sees her unexpectedly babysitting for a rich, alcoholic mother (Tammy Blanchard).
While said mother is out on a date, Tallulah “rescues” the baby, but finds she has no idea how to take care of it. With nowhere else to turn, she doorstops Nico’s mother Margo (Janney), introducing the child as hers – and claiming the absent Nico is the father.
Despite a strong, funny and affecting performance from Page, her character as scripted treads too close to caricature. An impulsive free spirit with a short attention span, Tallulah smokes roll-ups and talks in Buffy-speak. “Like, we’re all gonna die,” she observes. “It’s super sad.”
University academic Margo is a more richly detailed creation, though writer/director Heder handles dramatic irony with the delicacy of a sledgehammer: Margo is in the midst of a messy divorce. And the subject of her latest tome? Marriage. Separated from her husband, she sleeps with a dozen books in her bed, and hasn’t heard from Nico in two years. Her only close relationship is with her pet turtle. It dies.
The arrival of an unexpected grandchild into her life is an unlooked-for blessing. As you’d expect, she teaches Tallulah about responsibility, while the young vagabond helps her to loosen up; Janney and Page have a natural rapport, and play their developing dynamic brilliantly. A well-drawn scene in which the newly-emboldened Margo tries to seduce her building’s doorman Manuel (Felix Solis), but ends up wittering on about different varieties of wine, is wince-inducingly funny.
Heder’s writing is particularly sharp on the details of Margot’s separation, which maroons her in a university-owned apartment surrounded by her husband’s ghastly art collection, while her old friends offer vague apologies for dropping out of touch: “It’s just been really difficult for us, you know?”
The most daring part of the film is also the most problematic: Blanchard’s character, Carolyn, is a one-dimensional Bad Mother. The detective assigned to her case (Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba) puts it bluntly: “I deal with parents every day who should never have brought a life into this world… most of them are poor, or addicts… but you, I’m finding it hard to make excuses for.”
Tallulah glances toward the sensitive topic of postpartum depression, touching on Carolyn’s anxiety about feeling no innate bond with her child, but gives her no real emotional core. She remains a straw woman. We are encouraged to feel schadenfreude, then pity, and then – once the film has punished her enough – to praise her for having learnt her lesson. Her narrative arc is presented in such broad strokes that it feels manipulative.
In a heavy-handed moment of magical realism, Tallulah dreams that she has come untethered from the earth, grasping for something to keep herself from floating away into space. As a film, Tallulah has a bedrock of grounded, believable performances to latch onto, but makes the mistake of grasping after crude types and abstract themes instead.
Tallulah is available now on Netflix UK
Rating: 3 out of 5