Netflix UK film review: Tallulah
Ivan Radford | On 27, Jul 2016
Director: Sian Heder
Cast: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard
Watch Tallulah online in the UK: Netflix UK
Kids, eh? Who’d have ’em? In 2007, it was Ellen Page’s Juno, a teenager who found herself unexpectedly pregnant. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost a decade since that role announced Page on the world stage as one of the brightest young stars around. She returns to similar territory with Netflix’s Tallulah, which sees her grow into an even more mature and nuanced actor.
The feature debut of writer/director Sian Heder, the film watches as Page’s homeless young woman kidnap a toddler – an act that, inevitably, brings the police into the frame and leaves the child’s mother distraught.
But hold on a minute: before the narrative horse has bolted, Heder loads up the proverbial cart with no end of complications. This isn’t a snatch-and-run thriller, but a thoughtful study of maternity and morality.
Page’s Tallulah first meets her ward when she’s mistaken for the help in a New York hotel, where unhappy trophy wife Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) is looking to head off and hook up with an old flame. Left alone with one-year-old Madison, Tallulah is tempted to take the jewellery and cash sitting around the room. What begins as hesitant monitoring of the unattended child, though, turns into outright concern, when Carolyn returns much later, drunk and incapable of looking after her child.
Even then, Tallulah doesn’t flee with girl in tow – what we witness is a gradual shift from worried bystander to inadvertent abductor, a journey that Heder and the excellent Page take us on slowly, step by almost unnoticeable step. By the time Tallulah is knocking on the door of her absent boyfriend’s mother, Margot (Allison Janney), our ethical compass is well and truly bamboozled.
Page and Janney last shared the screen in Juno and their casting here gives them a chance to develop their awkward, pseudo-mother/daughter chemistry even further; they make a great pair, Page perpetually lying to push people away and Janney fantastic as a woman so intensely mothering that she’s become estranged in someone else’s apartment.
Are either of them better than the other at parenting? That’s the question Heder gently poses, but she doesn’t expect an answer. This is more accomplished filmmaking than that, never relying upon lazy exposition or on-the-nose speeches to spell out themes or concerns. Over the course of the film, a web of convincingly tangled relationships forms, with none of the characters behaving the way you expect them to, or even the way you want them to. One dinner scene with Carolyn’s ex-husband and his partner (John Benjamin Hickey and Zachary Quinto) is beautifully fleshed out, despite being fleetingly brief, with Page’s secret threatening to spill out – but to what end? A happy reunion? Or a failed rescue?
Heder expertly pushes and pulls our sympathies for 110 minutes – it’s no coincidence that she’s worked as a writer on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black (watch out for a brief appearance from Uzo Aduba as an understanding social worker). We even take time to explore Carolyn’s motivations, courtesy of a superb turn from Tammy Blanchard, who teeters between sophisticated urbanite and scared first-time parent in the same way that Page’s young face seems naive one second and world-weary the next.
The result is a wonderfully moving and quietly thought-provoking drama about three mothers at three very different ages in their own growing up. While some moments towards the climax slip into contrived coincidence, it’s a treat to have a film showcasing an ensemble of complex female characters that are so richly drawn. It’s testament to Heder’s carefully directed tone and the quality of her actors that there is time for laughter amid the heartbreaking emotion – and, without breaking the naturalistic mood, even the odd flight of fancy. Should we like any of these people? That’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: you’ll care about them every messed-up, realistic second.
Tallulah is available to watch online on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.