Comic drama "Tallulah" marks the feature directorial debut of Sian Heder (a writer on "Orange Is The Black"), and offers robust starring roles for Ellen Page and Allison Janney, reuniting for a far less quirky, but well-made follow-up to "Juno." Heder oversees the production with a sure sense of guidance, and provides a framework for Page, Janney, and the rest of the cast to do excellent work.
Ellen Page is Tallulah (or, often, 'Lu), a dumpster-diving dropout who lives in her van, persistently turned away from deep or even conventional interactions with society. She claims commitment to the vagabond life, but a gleam of longing in Tallulah's eyes suggests she hopes some other opportunity will manifest. The look of pure contentment on her face when her boyfriend Niko (Evan Jonigkeit) professes love is the first sign that she's not a stone-hearted road rat. She dreams of a moment when gravity might fail so she could float right off the Earth, but she's not truly ready to let go.
An argument over a growing desire to trade life on the road for an easier berth back in Manhattan drives Niko out of Tallulah's life. Soon on the streets of New York in search of the guy, or at least looking for cash, she is turned away by Niko's mother Margo (Janney), who has significant issues of her own to deal with, not least being the finalization of an embarrassing divorce.
Cast away by Margo, the urban opportunist 'Lu hits a swank hotel to scrounge cast-off room service. There she meets the dolled-up and probably-drunk Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a trophy wife afraid that her shine is already tarnished. Carolyn recruits Tallulah to care for her daughter while mom totters away for an illicit date. A couple of ill-considered emotional leaps and a few hours later, 'Lu flees the hotel with the kid in tow.
At this point we've seen enough of 'Lu living by the seat of her pants to be able to roll with her bad decisions. Even so, it's Page's pirouette between deadpan delivery and controlled dramatic expression that really sells the idea that she would steal a child. The seed of the action is present right in the film's first few scenes, however, and Heder's sure-footed direction seals the deal.
Soon Tallulah knocks on Margo's door once again. With baby in arms and a big lie about the child's parentage, the faux mother and child duo set up stakes in Margo's well-heeled apartment. Niko has split New York without even saying goodbye to mom, and Tallulah's presence might be a way for Margo to come to terms with that loss.
Plotting the path forward for these characters is done with some nudges to Tallulah's character that strain the film's otherwise fairly realistic requests for audience credulity. Is she really inept enough to not know how to deal with parking her van in Manhattan without getting booted? She's certainly not too inexperienced to survive on her own, or to realize that Carolyn's daughter suffers from a lack of attentive parenting.
Even when the script veers into contrived setups that have free spirit Tallulah waking Margo from her torpid life, "Tallulah" consistently offers terrific scenes featuring the duo of Page and Janney (who, it is worth noting, also excels in every solo scene). Their work together is the vibrant source of the film's appeal, and "Tallulah" is at its best when the plot recedes and we get to see Page and Janney's characters testing their tolerance and eventual affection for one another.
It's all too rare for a film to offer talents like Page and Janney the opportunity to talk at length, in situations where dialogue addresses life rather than some artificially heightened life and death situation. Forgive the plot of "Tallulah" a couple of bumps, because it is also patient enough to offer space for these conversations. An encounter between Margo and her doorman, while feeling underwritten, shows us a new side of Janney's character, especially once she and 'Lu have a moment to talk about it.
As Carolyn, the child's neglectful mother, Tammy Blanchard (also excellent in Karyn Kusama's "The Intervention") has the film's most showy role, one which risks the scorn of low-empathy audiences as it navigates the delicate line between intentional parody of a "Real Housewives" personality and a sympathetic portrait of a woman who is perfectly aware that she uses seduction and attitude to cover her own inadequacies. A late-game scene between Janney and Blanchard will break hearts, and stands as the zenith of both womens' work in the film.
Heder's direction shines, shaping the film around the cast as each woman plays out their own specific nuances of loss and insecurity, and, occasionally, optimism. "Tallulah" is an impressive feature debut, and a welcome showcase for the talents of Page, Janney, and Blanchard. [B+]