Tallulah (2016)

23 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I must confess, when I started watching Sian Heder’s Netflix Original film “Tallulah,” I had no idea what it was about. I knew it starred Ellen Page and Allison Janney…and that was it. As it was establishing the main character, I was invested. She’s a drifter named Tallulah aka Lu (played by Page) who lives in a van and roams from place to place. Where’s her family? I don’t know. Where was she from? I don’t know. How does she get by? I don’t really know that either. She has a boyfriend in tow, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), who tires of her lifestyle and ends up abandoning her, causing her to feel more alone (and it’s to Page’s credit as an actress that she can really show that in a scene in which she has very little dialogue). As the film continued for another 15 minutes or so, I was still curious where this person (along with the film) was going. Then it got to the point (which isn’t a spoiler, because it’s more or less the film’s “hook”) in which she snatches a baby from its mother and tries to care for it. That’s when I thought to myself, “Oh no, you’re not really going here, are you?” I worried maybe this was going the clichéd melodramatic path I expect from a premise like this.

Yet, I didn’t turn the film off. I was curious to see where it might be going, just in case it surprised me. And surely enough, it did. “Tallulah” turned to be one of the most moving films I’ve seen in quite a while. Much of that has to do with how this material was handled. It could have easily been bland, overwrought melodrama, but thanks to a carefully fashioned script, its grounded sense of direction, and brilliant performances by Page and Janney, it instead became something special.

The conflict begins as Lu goes to New York City, in search of Nico. All she has to go on is his mother, a divorcee author named Margo (Janney) who has enough problems in her life without a strange young woman asking for help. Lu steals room-service food from a nearby hotel and is mistaken for housekeeping by a young mother named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard). While tipsy and preparing to go out on a date, she asks Lu to look after her one-year-old daughter Madison. Carolyn comes off to Lu like an irresponsible mess, so Lu, even though she has no experience in caring for children let alone babies, decides to take the gig of babysitting. But when Carolyn returns drunk and passes out, Lu is concerned for Madison’s wellbeing and takes her away with her. Not knowing what to do, Lu takes Madison to Margo’s apartment, claiming the child is Nico’s and is her granddaughter. Margo reluctantly lets them stay for a little while.

From that point starts a bond that gradually forges the more time these people spend together. Lu continues to look after the child while Margo finds Lu is a bit of a handful as well. But Lu and Margo find ways to relate to one another that neither of them would have expected. This is where the film really shines: the development of the relationship between Lu and Margo. Both Page and Janney do extraordinary work and play off each other wonderfully. And this growth is important to the story, because it plays on the theme of motherhood and what it means to truly care for someone. Neither of these two have definite answers to questions of sacrifice and stress, but through each other, maybe they can find them together.

Of course, you know the truth about the child has to be revealed to Margo near the end of the film. While I was dreading that moment, I had hope in how it would play out, given how good everything was turning out so far. But thankfully, even though the moment does come, it’s surprisingly underplayed, allowing the characters to progressively think things through before they can really talk about the issue at hand. Sian Heder, who also penned the script, knows what we’re tired of seeing and has done something with tired material that feels fresh.

And that surprisingly also includes the subplot involving the child’s worrying mother! I was shocked to find how heartbreaking and compelling Carolyn’s story was turning out, given how we started seeing her as a caricature of an irresponsible mother. But you see how she feels throughout this turmoil of missing her baby and how she could’ve prevented something like this from happening eats her up inside. I truly felt for her.

The film isn’t entirely successful, however. A subplot involving the doorman (Felix Solis) of Margo’s apartment building goes nowhere. (Even if his exit from the film was the punchline to a joke…I didn’t get it.) Take that part out of the film, and I don’t think anything would have been missed.

By the end of “Tallulah” comes much warranted and appreciated character development from the title character. She learns what it means to be responsible for someone else after spending so much time looking after herself, and it turns out she may even be a little better looking out for someone else than she has for herself. When the film was over, I felt glad to be in the company of good people who I felt grew through difficult circumstances. “Tallulah” isn’t a film I’ll forget anytime soon.

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