Ellen Page stars as the titular Tallulah (who goes by “Lu”), a vagabond who seems content to drift through life scrounging and stealing in a van with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit). But when Nico expresses a desire to settle down in New York City, Lu flips out. When Lu awakens next morning to find Nico gone, she travels to New York in search of him. There she meets narcissistic, drunkard Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) who mistakes her for housekeeping and pays her to look after for her baby, Madison, as she goes out to meet an illicit lover. After witnessing Carolyn’s neglect of her child, Lu makes a rash decision and takes the baby so she can tend for it properly. Matters are complicated once the police begin a search for the missing baby and Lu turns up at the fancy apartment of Nico’s dejected middle-class mother Margo (Allison Janney) looking for help and claiming that Madison is Nico’s child.
All of this exposition is set-up rather heavy-handedly, but the film soars on it’s witty, insightful script and multi-faceted female characters. The stamp of Heder’s previous writing work on the fantastic Orange Is The New Black is distinctly evident in Tallulah. Heder tenderly explores the responsibilities women face as wives and mothers while deriving comedy and an endearing sweetness from their stories. Most importantly, the film offers up compelling relationships between women that are rarely afforded on screen and these remain the most important and intriguing bonds throughout.
Lu and Margo’s unlikely connection is the highlight, their exchanges provide the film’s biggest laughs and most heartfelt moments. In one instance free-spirited Lu bites into a raw head of broccoli and a disgusted Margo hilariously questions “Were you raised by wolves?”. In another scene, the pair solemnly contemplate the deep sadness of our innate mortality before finding laughter at the unbearable grimness of it all. These endearing character moments are where Tallulah really soars and they’re bolstered by Page and Janney’s sparkling chemistry. Both hit their dramatic and comedic cues with aplomb and their exchanges are entertaining enough to sustain the movie on their own.
Carolyn initially appears an intolerable, self-absorbed wreck but Blanchard skilfully reveals her as a more wounded, sympathetic women than first appeared. The interactions between these complex women, as their lives intertwine, are a spectacle to behold and Heder’s calm, flowing direction allows each character space to breathe. Despite the contrivances of the narrative, this is a graceful, emotive, funny exploration of maternal love that is as strong a showcase as any for why we need to address the gender inequality surrounding film directors.