A welcome return to form for Ellen Page, Tallulah is a well-meaning examination of what it takes to be a mother and who should have the right to be a parent. There is a fair amount of hand-wringing too, but the performances make this very watchable.
Free-spirit Tallulah (Ellen Page) is happy not to be tied down by anything or anyone. She lives in the back of a van with her boyfriend Nico and plans to keep on travelling and never settle down. Following a disagreement about what to do next, where unsurprisingly ‘Lu’ insisted on not starting a family with lover, Nico decides he’s had enough and disappears one morning. Furious, poverty-stricken and in need of answers, Tallulah heads off to New York City to the one place she thinks she might find some sort of resolution. Doorstepping Nico’s unsuspecting mother Margo (Alison Janney), she is quickly told to get lost and not return.
Roaming the halls of the vast hotels of the city scavenging for leftovers, Tallulah stumbles upon a rich, intoxicated and apparently uncaring new mother Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard). Somehow Carolyn hands over her child to the stranger as she heads off to meet a man thinking that everything will be okay, and paying a small babysitting fee. Tallulah spots an opportunity, convinces Margo that the baby is her own child with Nico, and sets off a chain of events that will deeply change all of their lives forever.
What the film does best is that it refuses to give the audience the easy way out that one might suspect is coming. Carolyn could have been a sympathetic character, desperately searching for her baby and fearing the worst. Instead, her tears and panic are largely dismissed by social workers and police officers alike. They, like the audience, know that Carolyn is not the perfect mother… but should that diminish our empathy for her?
The temporary home that Tallulah is building for the baby with Margo seems idyllic. It’s obviously too good to be true, and the tension comes from knowing that it will have to come to an end soon. In the meantime we get to see Page and Janney together again on screen after the wildly popular hit Juno; their relationship is less out of a witty hipster scrapbook this time around though, and more akin to fractured victims of circumstance tragedy.
Page in particular has struggled to find, or arguably be given, decent roles since Juno. Her small frame tends to lead to her being cast as a similar sort of character in every film, forgetting that she has matured into a fine actor. We already know how good Janney is, and when we see them together here we realise just how good Page can be too. Taking on the roles of mother and grandmother, the two women develop an unlikely bond to the baby as well as with one another. The script never rushes to bring the “family” together – instead, it feels very organic.
Sian Heder, who wrote and directed the script, knows just how to deliver strong, well-rounded female characters for the screen having produced several episodes of Orange is the New Black. Blanchard’s role initially seems like a lost cause, hopeless in every way, and yet we even warm to her. That doesn’t mean the idea of responsibility is suddenly one she wants to take on, or that she is desperate to find the woman who stole her baby, but more something of maternal instincts possibly kicking in.
The quandary is in just how much of that ‘maternal instinct’ is what drives Tallulah to do what she does, and in that case who is in the wrong and who is in the right in the end?