'Tallulah': Sundance Review

"Mothers don't always know best" is a tough lesson to teach.

Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard star in Sian Heder's debut feature, a comedy-drama about terrible parenting.

Ellen Page plays a rootless drifter who kidnaps a baby girl from the kid’s trainwreck of a mother (Tammy Blanchard) and finds a temporary home of sorts with Allison Janney’s jilted wife in the effective comedy-drama Tallulah. A directorial debut for Sian Heder, a writer-producer on Orange Is the New Black, Tallulah admirably challenges received wisdom about maternal feelings. It also takes gutsy risks with potentially dislikable main characters, all of whom are women, played with bravura skill by the three leads. There’s so much to root for here it’s painful to concede there’s some hideously on-the-nose, spell-out-the-motivation-in-capital-letters writing that lowers the tone. However, that obviousness won’t hurt its crossover potential one jot, and for a low-budget indie debut, this has bags of Juno-style commercial potential.

Page’s title character and her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) are modern-day hobos who live in a beat-up van. They drive aimlessly around the country, dumpster diving, stealing from strangers and using the gas-station credit card Nico got from his mother for fuel. But when he clears out suddenly after an argument, Tallulah, aka Lu, heads to New York to look for him at his family home near Washington Square, a palatial-by-Manhattan-standards apartment where his mother Margo (Janney) lives alone. But Nico’s not there, and Margo, still seething over her husband’s leaving her for a man, sends Lu packing without a handout.

While trawling the hallways of a fancy hotel in search of half-eaten room-service meals, Lu meets Carolyn (Blanchard), a blowsy one-time trophy wife who mistakes Lu for the hotel’s housekeeping staff. Carolyn is in town on a mission to have an affair and bolster her failing sense of self-worth as a sexual being, but she’s brought along her year-old daughter Madison for cover. Used to having a nanny looking after Madison entirely, Carolyn hasn’t a clue about child care, and barely gives a toss anyway. She lures Lu into babysitting for the evening while she goes out. Lu takes to the serious-faced but angelic tot (played by twins Evangeline and Liliana Ellis) so much that when Carolyn comes home soused and passes out in her Spanx, Lu takes Madison with her when she leaves.

The whole scene is played with such self-contained polish and tonal assurance it’s no surprise to learn that it was adapted from a short Heder made in 2006, Mother, inspired by an incident that happened in her own life when she worked as an on-call babysitter for major Los Angeles hotels.

It’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t hold steady at the same pitch of quality as Lu realizes she needs help and shows up at Margo’s door, claiming the child is Nico’s and her own. Heder’s script just can’t resist laying on heavy-handed ironies, like the fact that Margo is an academic who studies the history of the family. Meanwhile, in order to explain why Lu would do something so irrational as stealing a child, she’s handed a clumsy monologue about being abandoned by her own mother as a youongster.

Page and Janney have a pleasant, relaxed rapport with each other and are likeable enough presences to hang out with, but a lot of the business around their characters feels like padding to keep the two highest-profile actors busy. A half-baked tentative romance between Margo and her doorman (Felix Solis) is especially extraneous. A harder-hearted editor or producer might have persuaded Heder to dump the whole subplot, although it would have meant losing a priceless moment when Janney stumbles in high heels on a date, straining to maintain her dignity from above the waist, while her legs buckle like a newborn fawn beneath her.

Meanwhile, the real emotional meat of the movie resides in the scenes with Blanchard’s Carolyn as she deals with the horrifying aftermath of Madison’s abduction. Confronted with her failure as a parent, she’s panicked, guilt-ridden and terrified about how her husband will react. She flails helplessly, emotionally still a toddler herself, as police officers and a pregnant child-services officer (OITNB’s Uzo Aduba) not so silently judge her.

To Heder’s credit, Tallulah's last act smoothly knits together the subplots but leaves enough ragged edges that the hard questions the film poses about maternal love aren’t answered with pat, easy answers. Paula Huidobro’s often handheld cinematography bolsters that sense of looseness, and there’s a graceful spontaneity in the playing that’s consistently winning. The final scene, which plays out a symbolic theme about gravity to its logical conclusion, will make some viewers cringe, but it may be the cherry on the cake for more sentimental souls.

Production: A Route One Entertainment presentation of a Maiden Voyage Pictures Production in association with Ocean Blue Entertainment
Cast: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Uzo Aduba, Felix Solis, Frederic Lehne, John Benjamin Hickey, David Zayas, Zachary Quinto
Director-screenwriter: Sian Heder
Producers: Heather Rae, Chris Columbus, Russell Levine, Todd Traina
Executive producers: Eleanor Columbus, Chris Lytton, David Newsom, Charlotte Ubben, Mark Burton, Paull Cho, Ellen Page
Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Editor: Darrin Navarro
Production designer: Sara K. White
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Music: Michael Brook
Music supervisor: Laura Katz
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield, Conrad Woolfe
Sales: Good Universe

Not rated, 111 minutes