As a key part of the Orange is the New Black writers’ room, writer and director of Tallulah Sian Heder is no stranger to being unforgiving with her characters. Moving from female prisoners to incompetent, immature mother figures with her first feature film, based on her own short, Heder creates a world where people aren’t perfect, and most of them aren’t even trying to be better, but for the most part succeeds in making us feel and root for them.
We first meet Tallulah herself (Ellen Page) as she flees a biker bar, having stolen a bottle of whiskey, before making her getaway in the van she lives in with her boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit). She’s a dreamer, with ambitions to visit India, but has no practical plans of how she’ll ever leave her drifter life behind long enough to travel the world. Understandably, Nico is tiring of constantly moving about in a filthy van, and it’s refreshing to see during their arguments that the protagonist isn’t just misunderstood, but might actually actively be doing life wrong.
After Nico inevitably leaves, Tallulah finds herself at a desperate loose end and attempts to locate him through his estranged mother, Margo (Alison Janney). This proving fruitless, she wanders the corridors of a nearby hotel, picking up food from left over room service trays before being caught in the act by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a perma-drunk resident. Carolyn is headed out on a date and in a panicky stupor mistakes Tallulah for hotel staff, asking her to look after her obviously neglected one year old for the afternoon.
When Carolyn comes back blackout drunk, Tallulah realises that the baby is unsafe, and impulsively steals it away, before returning to Margo under the pretence that the baby is hers and Nico’s, making Margo a grandmother. The pair bond over this lie as Tallulah learns a bit more about how to be a real person from Margo. Meanwhile, the police hunt for the missing child, led by Uzo Aduba’s detective Kinnie (the only proper grown up in the whole film).
Tallulah takes very few unexpected turns, and all the plots progress pretty much exactly as you’d expect them to, though the relatively predictable ending does still pack enough of a punch to feel satisfying. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to stick to formula, particularly as a first time writer-director, and Tallulah and Margo’s joint attempts are funny and touching. In fact, the occasional dream sequences where characters find themselves untethered from earth’s gravity, despite being the film’s most obviously original touches, don’t really fit in with the overall tones and themes. Flashbacks, on the other hand, are handled excellently and with subtle flourishes of proper cinematic confidence.
Page and Janney both turn in great performances, capitalising on the chemistry they established all the way back in 2007 with Page’s breakout hit Juno and Janney of course proves to be the star of the show. Margo’s exasperation at herself for never knowing what she really wants, and growing genuine affection for Tallulah and ‘her’ baby feel desperately real, while also getting plenty of the funniest scenes and lines.
At this core level of a relationship between an experienced and new mother, Tallulah works very well, but lets itself down with its plotting. Perhaps the biggest failing is that the character of Carolyn is never remotely sympathetic enough for her to feel like anything other than a villain. After her introduction, you don’t believe for a second that she actually cares about her baby, and a couple of late in the game attempts to justify her behaviour don’t land at all. Given that Tallulah herself falls miles short of being a ‘good’ person, a proper ethical quandary could have been posed here, but instead we’re actively rooting against a woman trying to find her kidnapped daughter. Had Tallulah focused more solidly on the Page-Janney-Baby dynamic, it could have been really great, but instead ends up as an interesting character study with a deeply flawed story.