If you’ve ever wanted a feature-length version of one of those backstories on Orange Is the New Black, where good (or at least understandable) intentions and poor judgment lead to crime, Tallulah might be what you’re looking for. Written and directed by former OITNB staff writer Sian Heder, the indie drama, available on Netflix today (July 29), is a disturbing yet compassionate tale of being forced into a decision in a situation where there are no good choices.
Heder wrote the first version of this story, about a babysitter who whisks an infant away from its negligent mother, based on her own experiences. In real life, Heder felt terrible for leaving a 1-year-old with her passed-out-drunk mom. Her fictional counterpart, Lu (Ellen Page), takes the baby and passes her off as her own child to Margo (Allison Janney), the mother of Lu’s ex-boyfriend. Margo doesn’t trust Lu but can’t help taking in the homeless young woman and her purported baby granddaughter. It’s obvious to Margo that Lu doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of this child, and she can’t cast aside the last two people to have seen her runaway son, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. Plus, Margo could use the company, since her professor husband (John Benjamin Hickey), as we learn later, left her for a man several years ago.
Page and Janney aren’t asked to lean against type here. We’ve never seen Page eat room-service leftovers dumped outside of a hotel door before, but the hyper-articulation, rugged demeanor, and gradual opening of her shy, self-protective heart feels familiar. Janney plays yet another unwilling beard — her new non-Mom stock in trade. But the actresses — one diminutive as a mushroom, the other towering like a spruce — are key to making the somewhat outlandish plot feel grounded. Nailing the tonal difficulty of an abominably self-absorbed mom who probably deserves to have her child taken away but still merits our sympathy is Tammy Blanchard, playing a trembling, willingly helpless sexpot anxious about her (supposedly) fading looks. When Blanchard’s Carolyn practically thrusts her baby into the arms of Lu, whom she’s never met before, we can’t fault the young woman for thinking she could better care for the child. But Heder also makes clear the horror that Carolyn feels as a parent whose child has disappeared, even if her narcissism takes the absurd form of worrying that her little blonde girl will be sold into white slavery.
Tallulah also benefits from a tight, suspenseful script that has us rooting for the mutually nourishing relationship that forms between Margo and Lu despite the latter’s outrageous deceit, as any number of possibilities — the police search, the widespread news coverage of the crime, Nico’s return, and a couple of others I won’t spoil — threaten to break the two women’s nascent bond. The film fills us in on Lu’s past just enough to suggest why she chooses to live as a drifter — and, more compellingly, how that withdrawal from the world has left her with a blindness toward the line between escape and being unmoored, as well as a misunderstanding of what people need from one another.
The film also deftly illustrates how different social universes exist in a single city. Lu immediately enters the mom-o-sphere when she absconds with the baby, and her relationship to other women undergoes a sudden shift. Likewise with the claustrophobic East Village, where judgmental faculty size each other up on the streets, their passive-aggression as obvious as the glint of a knife. Margo enjoys the most outwardly stable life among the three women, but her housing situation is conditional, too: if NYU knew that her husband had moved out, she’d be kicked out of her apartment. There’s a fascinating thread throughout of the dangers of women relying on men and the ever-present threat of marginality, but it’s one Heder disappointingly doesn’t develop fuller.
With a dramatic chase and a few dreamlike touches, Tallulah manages to balance its tricky tonal shifts until the final few scenes, when the film seemingly feels obliged to end in a happier place than where the characters’ fates would suggest. But it’s hard to begrudge Margo, Lu, and Carolyn their small satisfactions, so tenuous is their grasp on what they’ve already got.