Written by Dylan Brandsema
Tallulah Plot Summary:
Young vagabond Lu (Ellen Page) 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.
A more fitting name for Tallulah would be “The Drifters,” or something along those lines, because the film isn’t so much about the title character of Tallulah so much as it’s about lonely, disconnected people finding purpose in life with the help of one another for different reasons. And, to its credit, it’s about that extremely well.
It’s the story of the young and nomadic but “technically not homeless” Talullah, played Ellen Page, who, after a break-up, wanders into a hotel in search of food, and through a series of unfortunate encounters and coincidences, winds up connecting with her ex-boyfriend’s distant mother, played by Allison Janney. Together, they cooperatively raise a baby which Talullah stole from a drunken mother while pretending to be hotel staff, all the while helping each other put together the pieces in their own lives.
Immediately, this series of events comes off as far-fetched and contrived, and from a pure storytelling perspective, it mostly is, but it also isn’t unbelievable. Really, the film is more about characters than it is about story, and these are some of the most interesting, well-rounded characters I’ve seen in a film all year. Page’s Talullah, in particular, is one of those characters that places the audience in a state of moral self-debate, and make us wonder if we would do the same as her. Take, for example, the early scene in which she sneaks the naked, stray one-year-old away from her intoxicated mother (Tammy Blanchard) to ensure her safety and give herself a lead-in to connect with Margo, her ex’s mother. While know what she’s doing is wrong, and it’s made even shadier when she convinces Margo the baby is her grandchild, we absolutely understand and sympathize with her actions. In a nutshell, the film is essentially a well-organized string of these scenes preceding one after the other.
As Margo, Allison Janney does an outstanding job portraying a woman who’s had more life experiences than she can keep track of and has learned absolutely nothing from any of them. It is for this reason that the chemistry between Page and Janney is instant and perfect. Not since last year’s Carol have two actresses fit so well together on the screen as two people working collectively to fill the holes in their hearts, while still giving two completely separate, distinct performances. Tammy Blanchard as Carolyn, the alcoholic mother of the baby which eventually brings our characters together, also does exemplary work, even with much less considerable screen time.
Not to be left out among the cast is Uzo Aduba, best known for playing Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. She plays Louise Kinnie, a detective for Child Protective Services, who approaches Carolyn as a suspect after her child is reported missing. Throughout the still ongoing success of Orange Is the New Black, Aduba has received universal praise for her wild, energetic and manic performance as a woman completely unaware of her own mental illness. Her turn here is the total opposite side of the spectrum, and it’s a welcome change. This film, after all, is the debut feature from Sian Heder, one of the key writers of the show’s first three seasons. After spending so much time turning Aduba into an unhinged lunatic, Heder is a smart enough writer/director to see her capabilities in giving a much more subtle, understated performance. I hope that Aduba will get more roles like in the future, as her work here is terrific, as usual.
On the subject of subtleties, too, this film revels in them. There’s a common mindset amongst many contemporary film critics that anything subtle is by default better than something more surface level and obvious. I disagree with this mentality in the general sense, but in the case of Tallulah, it’s the small, faint moments that make the film’s most dramatic moments particularly effective. Strategically, not much backstory is given concerning Tallulah’s past, and we spend a lot of time wondering why she is the way that she is. There’s an affecting scene towards the middle of the film in which she tells Margot about the last time she saw her mother, having been lured away from her by the persuasive powers of a “tall man with a van”. No further details are given, but we’ve put this puzzle together before. Listening to Tallulah describe this encounter is much more disturbing than if we had seen it in a flashback. It’s all about the tone of the delivery used to send the viewer’s imagination to a dark place, and Page pitches perfectly. The general rule is to show, don’t tell. I think there’s sometimes a value in telling.
Heder reportedly based the film on her perception of women who “probably know they shouldn’t have kids, but then they do it anyway.” This is an apt description, as it’s one of the best films about motherhood I can think of. It isn’t a film about what it means to be a mother, but it instead asks the question of whether or not being a mother is something every woman should aspire to do. This is not a concept one would initially think relatable to a 20-year-old male such as myself, but being part of a generation that seems to be doing away more and more with the desire to be a parent (a desire I have never felt), the film’s overall message I found to be not only engaging on a personal, human level, but also mandatory for anyone who’s ever felt looked down upon by society for not wanting to follow tradition by settling down and starting a family.
I like to talk a lot about details often in reviews — what worked and what didn’t, and whether or not I found specific aspects of the film fitting to the overall “big picture.” That isn’t the correct approach to reviewing this film. The fine points of the story are certainly not perfect, and I think it could have been a little shorter, but that isn’t really what’s important. Tallulah is not only a great film, but an important one. It’s an effective, honest portrait of people going through life not entirely sure what they want out of it. We’ve certainly all been there at one time or another. Here is a film that tells us that maybe that’s okay.
OVERALL RATING: 8/10
Tallulah is streaming now on Netflix