Tallulah screens as part of Sundance London 2016.
Tallulah, the opening film at this year’s resurgent Sundance London Film Festival after a world premiere at its bigger brother in Utah this January, is the sort of film that could all too easily gone very, very wrong. Its borderline schmaltzy tale of a young homeless girl who kidnaps a baby from an irresponsible mother would descend into the depths of feel-good handholding in lesser hands, but thankfully writer-director Sian Heder proves up to the task.
Ellen Page is the titular Tallulah, who sneaks into a plush Manhattan hotel looking for food. Mistaken for staff by Tammy Blanchard’s drunken, self-centred Carolyn, she’s left in charge of her baby Maddie, and after realising that she’s sharing the screen with one of 2016’s contenders for worst cinematic parent of the year, absconds with the child in a moment of impulse. She takes shelter with her ex-boyfriend’s mother Margo (Allison Janney, in a Juno reunion) through a teensy lie about the kid being her son’s.
It’s easy to imagine the film having a Very Special Episode atmosphere as everyone involved learns important lessons about each other, but there’s more to Tallulah than that. It offers three complex portrayals of different types of motherhood, not shying away from tough questions about the right to be a parent – or what to do when you don’t have the desire to be. It also avoids easy resolutions, resisting the urge to tie things up in a neat little bow for the finale.
Page and Janney are both on great form, and it’s a pleasure to see the two of them spar and bond across the film, Tallulah’s free spirit clashing with the older woman’s firmly set habits, taking comfort and security within her life’s rigid rules. Blanchard is a bit more one-note, all wispy voice and woozy smiles before giving way to hysteria, but there’s a nice appearance from Uzo Aduba as a child services worker on the case. If nothing else, it’s pretty delightful to see a film led so much by its women, a set of rounded, complex female characters pushing the men firmly into the wings.
Heder’s direction offers a few whimsical indie touches in the film’s occasional floaty dream sequences, but for the most part Tallulah’s feet are firmly on the ground, tackling an outlandish scenario head-on.
Words by Dominic Preston