Ten years after Ellen Page and Allison Janney co-starred in Juno as daughter and surrogate mother, they are reunited in the respective roles for Tallulah—Sian Heder’s feature-length adaptation of her 2006 short film, Mother. Inspired by Heder’s vastly different experiences first as a nanny for high-society wives and later as a mom herself, this daring and deeply personal study on the blessings and burdens of motherhood results in a film rife with paralyzing honesty.
Heder’s unconventional debut—part drama, part comedy, and part thriller—changes rhythms frequently and without warning. Its choppy structure and style mishmash can be jarring, the blips of magical realism especially so. But it also provides the malleable, forgiving arena necessary for its challenging narrative to play out.
Page is at home in her role as the titular Tallulah, a feisty scamp-type with an ageless charm. The absence of strong childhood role models in Tallulah’s life has contributed to her acute arrested development, causing her to flee from any responsibility or accountability. Armed only with her complicit boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonijkeit) and a dream to maybe visit India, Tallulah enjoys life to the fullest by surviving out of her van on petty theft and shower vouchers. But when she meets Nico’s suggestion of a more stable alternative to their nomad lifestyle with cries of treason, she wakes up the next morning to find him gone—along with her money.
She soon meanders into a luxury hotel, where she finds herself caring for the toddler of a manic young woman named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), who mistakes Tallulah for a hotel maid and enlists her sitting services so she can meet up with a gentleman lover.
This pivotal scene with Blanchard, who meets her demanding role with one of the strongest performances of the year, is the first indication of Tallulah’s true intentions. In a wrenching moment of candor, Carolyn confides in her impromptu babysitter about her life as a new mom. Drunk on all fours and acting as much an infant as her daughter, Carolyn laments, “Nobody ever tells you how hard it’s going to be … I see all these women on TV and on the street and they’re doing it, and I don’t know how. Everybody acts like it’s normal because everyone is doing it, but it’s not.”
After Carolyn returns from her booze cruise several hours later, leaving just enough time to remove her heels before passing out face-first, Tallulah takes matters into her own hands. She slips out of the hotel room, Carolyn’s baby in tow.
Carolyn is a hot mess and an unfit mother by all accounts. But a stability-averse runaway vagabond who is suddenly overcome by a maternal responsibility to protect the young might seem a glaring contradiction in character. Underscoring the point is an early scene in which Nico tells Tallulah he misses his mom, with Tallulah scoffing back, “Why?” But it’s likely because Tallulah didn’t grow up with a strong parental foundation that she was able to leave the hotel with this child in the first place. Her mom abandoned her when she was 6, so the sanctity of motherhood is all but lost on her (“I think it’s better to not be needed”).
Despite the packaging, this isn’t a story about a two-bit transient who goes looking for meaning in someone else’s child. At Tallulah’s core is a painful examination into one of the most sacred tenets of human life. The bond a mother has with her child remains unchallenged as the purest, strongest connection anyone can know. To suggest otherwise is the original crime against humanity. But what about the moms who struggle with building that bond, the ones who aren’t connecting with their child the way the world promised they would? If you’re a bad mom, are you a bad person?
What about women who do seek a traditional life with a traditional family, who stick to the rulebook to make it happen, only to watch it fall apart? Enter: Margo (Janney), Nico’s mom and a recent divorcée. When Tallulah appears on Margo’s front stoop carrying a bundle she claims is her granddaughter, Margo’s maternal instincts return from hiatus and she invites the pair into her home. Both orphans in their own right who were chewed up by their assigned family unit, Margo and Tallulah play house as long as they can before the inevitable comes to collect.
A writer on Orange is the New Black, Heder has ample experience juggling multiple storylines and allowing room for each to contribute unique perspectives on the human condition. And despite stretching itself uncomfortably thin in the beginning, Tallulah has an arresting power as the characters get entangled in the same web, having been short-shrifted by the institution of motherhood. The resolution is left ambiguous, maybe unnecessarily so. But to offer something more definitive might be a disservice.
Director: Sian Heder
Writer: Sian Heder
Starring: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Zachary Quinto
Release Date: July 29, 2016