Director: Sian Heder
Major Players: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard
Out Of Five: 3.5
Last year’s London Film Festival declared 2015 as the year of strong women and, if its opening film was anything to go by, Sundance London 2016 is treading the same path.
Directed by Sian Heder, Tallulah boasts three impressive female performances at its heart and, like Beasts Of No Nation at last year’s LFF, also comes from the Netflicks stable. Whether it will be confined to the small screen or find its way into cinemas remains to be seen, although American audiences will only be able to see it online from the end of next month.
Ellen Page is the Tallulah of the title, a rootless free spirt who lives in her camper van. After splitting with her boyfriend and arriving in NY, she’s in a hotel taking advantage of left over room service when one of the guests mistakes her for a member of staff. The woman (Tammy Blanchard) has her little girl with her but is clearly unable to cope with the demands of the toddler and before Tallulah can think twice, she’s agreed to babysit while the mother goes out on a date. She’s drunk on her return and, when Tallulah is about to leave, the child screams the place down in distress. Instinctively, she takes her with her.
So, yes, she’s kidnapped the child. Yet her reasons make perfect sense to her and to the audience. With a mother that doesn’t appear to care and is keen to palm off the toddler to anybody she can find – complete strangers included – Tallulah’s concern is understandable. She can see the child needs attention and affection and it seems likely that the few hours she spends with the homeless girl are the first time she’s experienced either for some time. The fact is Tallulah is doing the wrong thing but for the right reasons.
But a cramped camper van parked on a street is no place to look after the youngster, so where to go? The answer is Margo (Allison Janney), the ex-boyfriend’s mother, who lives alone in a nice apartment while her divorce is going through. She’s angry about the break-up of her marriage, full of NY angst but, having grown used to living by herself, has also become something of a territorial control freak. And now her life is up-ended by a homeless girl with a toddler.
Inevitably, while Margo gets used to her guests, a police hunt is on the way and it’s no spoiler to say that the child and her real mother are re-united. Interestingly, as soon as the toddler sets eyes on her mother, the words “mama” pass her lips. Even more interesting and unexpected is the connection between the two older women when they meet: they have much more in common than they – or we – could ever have expected.
Ellen Page is as engaging as ever in the title role and hats off to her for ignoring the convention of never acting with children – especially as here she’s sharing the screen with the two sisters who play the toddler. Allison Janney demonstrates yet again that she’s one of the most underrated actresses around and Tammy Blanchard shines in a role that initially elicits contempt but seamlessly shifts our attitude to something closer to compassion. It’s a trio of strong performances.
Would that Sian Heder had resisted including the film’s dream sequences: they simply don’t fit and jar with a story that’s essentially rooted in reality. But overall this is a very watchable example of what a woman director/writer can do, especially when she’s given a high calibre cast. This is Heder’s first feature film and she clearly has a great eye for strong characters. Hopefully UK audiences will get the chance to see this sooner rather than later.
Tallulah is screened at Sundance London on Sunday, 5 June and reviewed on Talking Pictures on 2 June.