by Kirsty Capes, published on August 9, 2016 - 6:30 PM
Tallulah tells the story of young vagabond, Lu (Ellen Page), who lives in a van and is fiercely independent in her hand-to-mouth existence. When a chance encounter incites her to impulsively “rescue” a baby from a negligent mother, Lu, at a loss for what to do, turns to the only responsible adult she knows: Margo (Allison Janney), who mistakenly believes she’s the child’s grandmother.
More than anything, Tallulah is a negotiation of what exactly it means to be a mother. Among other things, including themes of abandonment, millennial angst and notes of the bildungsroman, motherhood is the lifeblood at the core of Sian Heder’s new femalecentric drama, and the script and direction examines and explores exactly what motherhood means for the plot’s three central characters. Unsurprisingly, it offers no real answers, but still manages to evoke a poignancy and kinmanship which makes it a beautiful and heart-tugging watch.
Similar to Sian Heder’s short film Mother from 2006, Tallulah’s premise sees Ellen Page’s eponymous character steal a toddler from a drunken Beverly Hills housewife, the simpering Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), after being mistaken for a hotel babysitter. Tallulah seeks out her estranged boyfriend’s mother Margot (Allison Janney) under the pretence that the baby is the latter’s granddaughter. Margot and Tallulah establish an uneasy relationship as they become tethered to each other by the child. Meanwhile, Tallulah’s lie unravels as Carolyn and the police close in on her.
Notably, Page and Janney reprise roles not dissimilar to their characters in Diablo Cody’s Juno from 2007, which is one of my all-time favourite films and one of the reasons I was so keen to watch Tallulah. Like Juno, Tallulah places the female experience at the heart of the script, and examines the nuances of female relationships in layered and intricate detail, something which is so often sparse in modern cinema. Janney plays a maternal figure for Tallulah, who has spent her entire life relying on herself and actively rejecting any dependence upon others. For Tallulah, it is a comfort to finally trust someone enough to be looked after by them, and Margot finds new meaning in life with the arrival of Tallulah and baby Maggie/Maddie. Ironically as a relationship expert and esteemed academic, Margot writes about the importance of the nuclear family while facing turmoil in her own domestic sphere: her husband has left her for a man and her son has disappeared. Her professional and familial frustrations are subtle yet implicit in Allison Janney’s portrayal of a stoic woman desperate for purpose.
The three mothers at the centre of the script are remarkably unique, and they exhibit different facets on what might be described as a spectrum of matriarchy and matriliny. Carolyn initially has her child to secure her affluent husband, but soon realises that the burden of motherhood has taken a toll on her lifestyle and mental wellbeing. Tallulah is an accidental surrogate mother of sorts whose compassion and naïveté get the better of her; and Janney’s character Margot’s academic career is at odds with her instinctive need to nurture a family unit. Hers is the most interesting angle, as it combats that age-old school of thought that a career woman cannot be a mother, and vice versa. Margot both supports and contradicts this rule, as she proves that a woman can indeed, have ‘both’, but is also the exception to the rule as her own family leaves her and she wonders whether it is because she has done something wrong – failed as a woman, even.
Heder’s quiet narrative of loss and kindredness of and with oneself (and among others), with particular attention paid to these struggles within women, is expertly woven over an autumnal New York City landscape. Sadly the film falls short on a few counts: its overt whiteness, its similarity to other work within the genre, its tendency to emulate stereotypes rather than subvert them. Despite this, Tallulah is a soft yet stoic triumph of female power and personal development, in a landscape that all too often overlooks mothers instead of celebrating them.