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.