It’s hard to know just where to start when talking about Tallulah. It fits right into that strange little sweet spot of having some things going for it, other things falling a bit short, but not a whole lot of it feels especially fantastic or egregious, so the general impression one gets as the credits roll is bland contentment. However, that would make for a really short review, so perhaps I should expound a bit on why Tallulah is a decent enough film, but only just that.
The film opens on Tallulah (Ellen Page) and her boyfriend Nico living out of a van and being general layabouts. After Nico tells Lou—as she prefers to be called—that he wants to see his mother again after two years of living away from her, they get into a fight and Lou wakes up to find that he has left her behind. She travels to New York City to track down Nico, and while scavenging for food at a nearby hotel, she is coerced into a hotel room by a distraught woman with a naked one-year-old girl. The mother (Tammy Blanchard) offers Lou a lot of money to watch the child while she goes off to hook up in an extramarital affair. The woman is drunk, emotionally unstable, and vocally resentful of the way having a child has impacted her life, but Lou takes the money and babysits. When the woman returns to her hotel room and immediately passes out, Lou decides that she needs to take the baby away from that situation. Not knowing what to do with the infant, she tracks down Nico’s mom, Margo (Allison Janney), claiming that the baby is hers and Nico’s.
It’s a complicated set-up that the film admittedly spends way too much time establishing, but it does pay off with some great performances and a plot structure that astoundingly gives all three of its female leads a fully fleshed out character arc. Page is the true standout, giving what is probably the most nuanced performance of her career as an irresponsible adult-child learning responsibility through sudden parental responsibility. The lack of a parental presence in her life has simultaneously caused stunted emotional growth and a darkly nihilistic outlook on life that her new connections with other people start to curb. Serving as her foils are Janney’s take on a parent who clung so strongly to the idea of family structure that the collapse of that structure tore her apart, along with Blanchard as a woman who doesn’t recognize the value of her maternal role until it is taken away from her. The three grow in such a way as to complement each other’s journeys, which lends the film a thematic depth that is rare in character-driven, independent cinema.
It seems rather unfair, then, that those riches are buried by a screenwriter’s proclivity for redundancy and a director unwilling to leave anything on the cutting room floor; this is hardly surprising given that they are one and the same person, Sian Heder. Heder may have a deft understanding of interweaving multiple character arcs to serve a cohesive thematic point—after all, she writes for Orange Is The New Black, a show that exists for exactly that purpose—but she revels in the extended runtime a feature film allows her so that Tallulah becomes bloated by about twenty minutes of extraneous junk. Monologues—particularly Blanchard’s—are overwritten to the point of tedium, and certain symbolic moments, such as the film’s numerous dream sequences, hammer home points that should already be obvious to even the most casual of viewers.
I like Tallulah, and there are plenty of reasons to check it out—whether it be for the performances, the tension inherent in its premise, or what the film has to say about maternity and family structure. It’s just frustrating that so many of the film’s faults come down to structural and writing mistakes, keeping it from greatness and making it just “good enough.” Still, if you have a Netflix account, give it a go—particularly if you like Orange Is The New Black. If nothing else, it’ll at least help scratch your itch while you wait for season five.