Sundance Film Review: ‘Tallulah’

Tallulah Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

'Juno' stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney reunite in the strong directorial debut of 'Orange Is the New Black' writer Sian Heder.

Ellen Page lands her best starring vehicle since “Juno” in “Tallulah,” a very different story of a young woman coming to terms with the idea of being a mother. The feature-length scripting-directing debut of “Orange Is the New Black” staff writer Sian Heder offers juicy roles not only to Page but also to Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard, in a strong showcase of female talent both behind and in front of the camera. Netflix acquired SVOD rights prior to the pic’s premiere in competition at Sundance, but Heder’s compassionate, audience-friendly dramedy deserves a shot in theaters, too.

Vagabond Tallulah (Page) lives out of her van and drifts from city to city with no ties to anyone or anything, except her boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), and that’s just the way she likes it. When Nico surprises her one night by suggesting they go back to his hometown in New York and maybe settle down or start a family, she flips out. The next morning Nico is gone, and a penniless Tallulah, who goes by “Lu,” makes her way to New York City anyway and barges into the fancy apartment building of Nico’s mother, Margo (Janney).

Dealing with issues of her own — stemming from Nico’s two-year long absence and her ex-husband (John Benjamin Hickey) coming out of the closet and asking for a divorce — Margo slams her door in Lu’s face, despite the young woman’s connection to her missing son. Wandering into a swanky hotel to scavenge for room service scraps, Lu is mistaken for a maid by spacy trophy wife Carolyn (Blanchard), who is desperately looking for anyone to babysit her 1-year-old daughter, Madison (Evangeline and Liliana Ellis), while she tries to score an extramarital hook-up.

Seduced partly by the wads of cash and jewelry Carolyn leaves lying around, and partly by Madison’s obvious need for a responsible caretaker (the toddler roams around diaper-less, peering out the balcony window and grabbing at bottles of beer), Lu stays and Carolyn bolts. When a drunk and defeated Carolyn returns hours later and promptly passes out on the bed, Lu can’t bring herself to leave a wailing Madison alone and makes a rash decision to bring her into the van overnight.

The next morning Carolyn wakes up in a panic and by the time Lu arrives to hand Madison over, the police are already on the scene and Lu makes another rash decision to take off with Madison in tow. With nowhere else to go, she winds up back on Margo’s doorstep — this time telling her Madison is Nico’s child. Margo reluctantly lets Lu into her home, and even more reluctantly into her life. Meanwhile, Carolyn hopes to prevent her husband (Fredric Lehne) from finding out what happened, which makes both the lead detective (David Zayas) and child protection agent (Uzo Aduba) assigned to the case dubious of her motives.

One woman’s coincidences are another woman’s contrivances, and Heder’s script likely won’t please those who prefer their indie dramas naturalistic and event-free. But the freewheeling storytelling enacted here has an excellent anchor in the grounded work of the ensemble cast. Even Lu’s initially inexplicable actions in holding onto Madison become more understandable as the film progresses, and Heder does a commendable job of opening up the characters’ backstories without over-analyzing their behavior.

Page is simply superb in a complex role that perfectly plays to her gift for balancing deadpan comedy with surprisingly deep emotional reserves. And while she was a sterling support opposite Page in “Juno,” Janney rises here nearly to the level of co-lead as an uptight control freak whose desire to cling to her family only serves to push them away. The film could probably do without a half-baked subplot involving Margo’s relationship with her doorman (Felix Solis), but even in that digression Janney nails the physical comedy and pathos of a woman looking to make a connection.

Reliable character actress Blanchard is perhaps the biggest revelation, playing Carolyn at first as a spot-on parody of a certain kind of real housewife of self-absorption, but gradually peeling back her layers — in collaboration with Heder — to reveal the wounded woman underneath. The men on hand are asked to do more with less, and Jonigkeit sells Nico’s love for Lu with only a handful of scenes. Similarly, Hickey and Zachary Quinto construct an entire world in just a single sequence when Margo and Lu share a tempestuous lunch with her ex and his new b.f.

Heder’s approach is reminiscent of her terrific work on “Orange” in numerous ways — from a boundless compassion for women’s hidden stories to the graceful mix of smart comedy and human drama. It’s only appropriate that Aduba shows up to steal a few scenes as the pregnant agent who puts Carolyn in her place, before seeing the other side of her story.

Tech credits here are aces, especially Paula Huidobro’s unaffected lensing and Darrin Navarro’s graceful cutting — which shifts almost imperceptibly between reality and fantasy in a few pivotal scenes. The visual effects employed to illustrate a key theme that bookends the pic have an ethereal beauty apt for the story’s overall impact.

Sundance Film Review: 'Tallulah'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2016. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Route One Entertainment presentation of a Maiden Voyage Pictures production in association with Ocean Blue Entertainment. (International sales: Good Universe.) Produced by Heather Rae, Chris Columbus, Russell Levine, Todd Traina. Executive producers, Eleanor Columbus, Chris Lytton, David Newsom, Charlotte Ubben, Mark Burton, Paul Cho, Ellen Page. Co-­producers, Ged Dickersin, Sophia Dilley. Co-­executive producers, Ken H. Keller, Carol Rudner.

Crew

Directed, written by Sian Heder. Camera (color, HD), Paula Huidobro; editor, Darrin Navarro; music, Michael Brook; music supervisor, Laura Katz; production designer, Sara K. White; art director, Katie Hickman; set decorator, Kendall Anderson; costume designer, Brenda Abbandandolo; sound, Anton Gold; re-recording mixer-supervising sound editor, Ryan M. Price; visual effects supervisors, Jeon Hyoung Lee, Mitchell Ferm; visual effects, 4th Creative Party; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; associate producer, Michael Tennant; assistant director, Inna Braude; second unit camera, John Malvino; casting, Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield.

With

Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Uzo Aduba, David Zayas, Felix Solis, John Benjamin Hickey, Zachary Quinto, Fredric Lehne, Evangeline Ellis, Liliana Ellis.

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  1. Sonya Johnson says:

    I love this movie. And the ending is perfect. The smile means Lu knows she has helped the drunk mom appreciate her child. More importantly, Lu is starting to realize that she has family: Margo and Nico. Lu didn’t want to need anyone because her mother abandoned her when she was six. She clings to her van like Margo clings to her apartment. But Lu desperately needs a mother. Nico loved her enough to ride around the country in her van for two years even though it probably got old after two weeks. He offers her a life but she throws it in her face. He ditches her but Lu finds she really does need him and she hightails it to his mother, Margo, whom he mentioned he missed and wanted to see. Margo shuts the door in her face. Then the drunk-lush mom, Carolyn, dumps her one year old on her. Lu identifies with the helpless baby girl. When Carolyn passes out, Lu takes the baby to the van because that’s the only place she can sleep. The next morning the police are everywhere and half-feral child Lu panics and runs to Margo’s apartment, telling her it’s Nico’s baby: the only way, of course, that she can get Margo to take her in. And slowly, Margo comes to love Lu. Lu spends less time with her van, is able to sleep in a regular bed. Asks to sleep in Margo’s bed at one point. But Margo needs Lu as much as Lu needs Margo. Lu loves life more than Margo does. Margo is willing to float away, but Lu shows her it’s good to stay in this world. That’s part of the ending.
    This movie is about family, what it takes to build a family. And the damage that happens when people don’t do it well. Margo is an intellectual, but she wanted a family more than anything. And she’s good for it. Margo’s ex-husband is gay, but he hid behind Margo as his beard. Until the shit-head was courageous enough to step out and be with another man. He built a sham of a marriage and left it when it suited him. He didn’t touch Margo for the last eight years of the marriage and she hates herself because she stayed anyway. That’s why the bit about the doorman liking her is so important. Fifty-something women need romantic love, too, and it’s so rarely portrayed in movies.
    I so, so want Ellen Page to make a rom-com. Her comedic timing is exquisite and she’s so pretty. Plus she’s got such depth she could do such an intelligent rom-com. So many rom-coms are stupid. Please, please, somebody convince this young woman to do a rom-com. A hetero one. To show people what a fine actor she is and that she can do more than dark and deep indie flicks and that what people see on the surface is not necessarily what’s beneath. People need to know this.
    Tallulah is a great movie. Not everything is on the surface, so maybe you should watch it twice. One of the few things I would have changed is when Margo told Lu to not use her toothbrush. It’s night time. A mother would have asked Lu if she had a toothbrush of her own (for the morning).

  2. annekallas says:

    I loved it until the final scene. Really? (eyeroll) That’s the best you could do with such a rich story? Allison Janney looked as embarrassed
    and uncomfortable as I felt watching such a cheesy ending.

  3. Tomi says:

    I detested the movie and the characters and saw nothing redeeming in any of them except margo.

  4. jess says:

    Starring vehicle, shouldn’t it be starring roll?

  5. Janie says:

    The ending was stupid. I hate when I watch a movie only to be disappointed by a weak ending. It tried to be a cool ending with the whole floating away thing and she decides to grab the branch like Tellulah said. But, it was just lame.

  6. PattyFromTexas says:

    I watched this movie today and found an immediate affinity for Talulah, a lost and wounded soul, who couldn’t leave another lost and wounded child alone. Her smile after Detective Richards asked her “So, you make a habit of taking toddlers into protective custody?” hints at a worthwhile future.

    • Steven read says:

      The smile is great. It’s the best we could hope for that she will be ok. I loved the film. Great characters that we see break through their conflicts and come out the other side better. What more can we ask for in life. Great movie.

  7. jolie blake says:

    I am so excited to see this….looks amazing…trailer made me cry…

  8. Muzicio says:

     set a new sales record Tuesday at the Sundance Film Festival, netting a $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight. According to

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