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Tallulah is a very effective drama that overcomes its faults through strong character work and a gripping, moving story.
Written and directed by Sian Heder (Orange is the New Black), Talluhan follows the titular character (Ellen Page), a drifter that’s been on the road for as long as she can remember. She crosses paths with a rich and very negligent mother (Tammy Blanchard) that irresponsibly leaves her baby in the care of a stranger. Confused, Tallulah takes the baby to the only person she can count on at the moment – her boyfriend’s mother Margo (Allison Janney).
At its core, Tallulah explores how this particular incident ends up profoundly affecting the lives of all three women, tackling issues of identity, abandonment, family, motherhood and marriage, among other things. The most compelling thing about the movie is just how fleshed out these women actually are.
When you get right down to it, the basic premise is that the main character literally kidnaps a baby and pretends to be its mother. Tallulah accomplishes the very difficult task of making the audience understand exactly why she would do such a thing and not hate her for it.
At first, this is done at the expense of Carolyn, who is made out to be almost cartoonishly negligent a mother, what with letting her baby hold bottles of alcohol and climb on balconies, as well as leaving her in the hands of a stranger while she goes out on a date with a man who isn’t her husband. In a lesser film, she would have been just that – a means to and end to justify Tallulah’s decision and further the plot, but the movie smartly makes Carolyn confront the consequences of her negligence and shows her grow dramatically as a character by having to deal with the loss of her child.
Tallulah herself is a drifter with abandonment issues that are slowly unpacked throughout the movie. It’s easy to see why someone that’s spent most of their lives on the road, purposefully avoiding to tether themselves to any kind of stability would do the kinds of things she does and Ellen Page channels the kind of scrappy vulnerability and aloofness that’s just the right fit for the character.
Margo is going through a pretty rough time in her life, including, but not limited to, a messy divorce and an estranged son. Tallulah suddenly showing up on her doorstep with a baby brings a fresh, jarring perspective that jolts her out of her downwards spiral. Allison Janey and Ellen Page have great chemistry together and the heart of the movie is the two of them bouncing off each other in various ways.
All of that being said, the movie does stumble here and there. There are a couple of flashback sequences dedicated to exploring Tallulah’s relationship with Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), Margo’s son, that feel unnecessary. The opening establishes their core dynamic quite well and the flashbacks add little that couldn’t have gone unsaid. That aspect of the movie should have either been expanded or cut out entirely.
There’s also a recurring dream sequence that isn’t entirely called for. The ending could have accomplished what it was going for without taking that extra step to bookend things. These are, however, decidedly minor issues.
Tallulah largely succeeds because of its sharp writing and complex characterization. It’s heartfelt and thought-provoking, bolstered by strong performances from a talented cast. It’s easily one of the best movies out of selection at this year’s Sundance London film festival.