Ellen Page’s complicated onscreen relationship with children continues in Tallulah, which reverses the Juno dynamic — this time her title character wants a kid who isn’t hers. Orange Is the New Black scribe Sian Heder makes her directorial debut with the sympathetic indie, a maternal character study that loses its way as it tries, like several key characters, to be something it isn’t.
We first meet Tallulah (Lu for short) in the back of the van in which she lives with her boyfriend, who’s grown weary of their itinerant life and is considering a return to the comfortable existence he left behind in New York. Lu mentions her desire to visit India (“Is that where the Himalayas are? ‘Cause I wanna climb the Himalayas”), and after an argument about her flightiness and their future, he bails in the dead of night.
Page excels in these early scenes, embodying her homeless-by-choice character with the same relaxed comfort that Lu inhabits her beaten-up van. The actress’ low-key charisma is well suited to this unassuming figure who cannot accept at face value the conventions of adulthood; Lu’s undergrad sensibility may be skewed, but you at least believe that she believes it. Heder first conceived of Tallulah a decade ago, before Page was the star she is now, but the actress takes to the role so naturally that it feels like it was written with her in mind.
For lack of a better option, Lu makes her way to the city in an attempt to reunite with her beau. Once there she instead falls into a babysitting gig with a woefully out-of-her-depth mother (Tammy Blanchard) and takes it upon herself to abscond with her one-year-old charge — a move that, at least to Lu, feels as much like a rescue as a kidnapping. Then she shows up at the upscale apartment of her boyfriend’s mother Margo (Allison Janney), passing the tyke off as her own in the hope that she’ll at least get a warm bed for a few nights.
Margo’s loneliness is signaled by impending divorce proceedings (and she’s the author of a book on marriage — such irony!) and also the death of her pet turtle, whose floating body she discovers moments before Lu knocks on the door. This, of course, leads to one of those Sundance-friendly portraits of damaged people coming together to form non-nuclear families, easy to spend time with in exactly the way you’d expect of a Netflix movie. That may be faint praise, but it isn’t necessarily a complaint.
The most poignant surprise is Blanchard as a real housewife of Beverly Hills who doesn’t realize that she wants to be a mother until her child is taken from her. In just a few scenes that call on her to be a teary-eyed trainwreck, she shows this woman’s limitations while displaying few herself.
Like that irresponsible mother, though, Tallulah isn’t great in a crisis. Lu’s transgression catches up with her in the form of tabloid headlines and news broadcasts that she has to avert Margo’s gaze from in a few scenes that feel out of place. The film’s premise rests on one contrivance too many as it is — how Lu reaches her boyfriend’s mom long before he does is never explained — and Heder keeps raising the stakes instead of settling into the groove established so well by her two leads.