Tammy Blanchard, Allison Janney and Ellen Page at the ‘Tallulah’ premiere (Getty Images)
Nearly a decade after they charmed the world in Juno, Ellen Page and Allison Janney have re-teamed for a new — and very different — examination of motherhood.
With Tallulah, which made its world premiere on Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, Page has graduated from playing a quirky and earnest teen who is giving her baby up for adoption, to a troubled drifter who kidnaps a toddler. The only similarities between the two women are that they’re the title characters who are trying to do the right thing. It’s a lot easier, initially, to sympathize with Juno, but that is part of the point: Tallulah, both with its script and Page’s performance, creates a moving portrait of a complex and misguided character who demands, at the very least, our sympathy.
Janney has also taken a more melancholy turn in writer/director Sian Heder’s first feature (she’s a writer for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and the streaming network has already bought the distribution rights to Tallulah). While Janney is not playing Page’s mother in this film as she did in Juno, her character Margot winds up being Page’s surrogate parent; she’s under the impression that the baby belongs to her son Nico (Tallulah’s estranged boyfriend, played by Evan Jonigkeit), whom Margot hasn’t seen in two years.
In fact, the baby belongs to a train wreck of a mother named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) who mistakes Tallulah for a hotel maid (Tallulah was sneaking around the hotel’s halls, scavenging for half-eaten room service). Drunk and depressed, Carolyn, who is in New York to cheat on her rich husband, lets her 1-year-old daughter walk around the hotel room naked and even wander onto the room’s balcony. After a short conversation, Carolyn asks Tallulah to babysit while she goes to meet her prospective paramour. (As Heder told the audience after the screening, she worked as a hotel babysitter when she first moved to LA, and saw a lot of mothers like Carolyn).
Soon enough, Tallulah decides that Carolyn, who expressed drunken regret over having the child, is not fit for motherhood, and even a hazard to her baby daughter. And so she takes it upon herself to give the child, whose name is Madison, a better home — even though Tallulah lives in a van and is dead broke.
Related: Sundance Report: Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘Swiss Army Man’ Delivers Smart Art In Between Farts
Margot lives in a well-appointed apartment, but she’s just as lonely as Tallulah when the younger woman shows up at her doorstep. The apartment is owned by her ex-husband, who came out after decades of marriage and now lives with his boyfriend (Zachary Quinto). And while she’s very reluctant to help her visitors at first, she soon recognizes that Tallulah truly needs her help — and that it’s nice to be needed.
Despite her drunken laments, Carolyn notifies the police of the kidnapping; the film splits its time between Tallulah and Margot’s bonding, and Carolyn and the NYPD’s urgent search, which serves to remind the viewer that no matter how much Tallulah cares for Madison, she’s still a kidnapper.
Movies very often have us rooting for anti-heroes, badasses with hearts of gold or hurt people trying to process their pain. But even with the scenes featuring a hysterical Carolyn and the police (David Zayas and Uzo Adubo), it’s hard to not want Tallulah to get away with the crime — or at least not be punished if and when the baby is returned to its mother. Chalk that up to Page’s inherent likability and the urge to see troubled people grow stronger through the power of love.
Page, now 28 years old, also serves as an executive producer on the film. And, as an actress, she puts in some of the strongest work of her career as the troubled soul at the center of the drama. What’s more, after nine years, her chemistry with Janney is still very much intact, as the two trade insults and, eventually, secrets with a natural ease. And even if the film sometimes dips into melodrama, the vividness of its characters make it a winning first feature.