Mothers — who gets good ones, who gets to be one — have never been so over-examined as they are in “Tallulah,” the first feature from television writer/director Sian Heder (“Orange is the New Black”). Heder has made no secret of the difficulties in financing the film, telling IndieWire’s Kate Erbland of pressure to make one of the three female leads a man. However, in her dogged attempt to render and redeem flawed mothers, she belabors the point she fought so hard to make.
“Tallulah” — named for its lead character, played by Ellen Page — is a dumpster-diving punk living in a van with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), until he ditches her to return to the comfortable life he left behind. Tallulah’s search for Nico leads her to his mother’s doorstep, who hasn’t seen her son since he skipped town with her credit cards two years prior. Margot, (Allison Janney), an author specializing in marriage advice, is in denial about her recent divorce.
Scouring a fancy hotel for room service scraps, Tallulah accepts a last-minute babysitting job from Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), an unhinged and likely unfit mother. When Carolyn stumbles back to the room slurring about the man who didn’t want her, Tallulah makes a snap decision to take the crying baby from her passed-out mom. Panic-stricken, she turns to Margot — the only mother she knows — for help. To seal the deal and soften her cold demeanor, she tells Margot the child is her baby with Nico.
Though they don’t know it, the unlikely bedfellows share a need to be needed. (Just before Tallulah shows up, Margot’s turtle dies.) The stolen baby fills the gap Nico left, and distracts each woman from her own personal failings.
The dialogue teeters on expository with a flair for the dramatic. Lying on the lawn of Washington Square Park, Tallulah imagines floating away from the earth, grabbing onto a tree branch. Margot says wistfully, “I don’t think I’d grab on. I think I’d let go.” As Tallulah crawls into bed with Margot, her body giving in to her need to be mothered, the two muse on death. They settle down with the conclusion: “We’re all gonna die.”
Other times, it’s not the dialogue trumpeting the film’s agenda, but the supporting characters. A pregnant social worker, played by Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) shoves her “good” motherhood in Carolyn’s face like the smoke Carolyn blows in hers. There’s also a short but electric scene with John Benjamin Hickey as Margot’s ex-husband and Zachary Quinto as his new lover, in which the two smug gay men discuss their plans for adopting a baby from Bhutan. (Heder seems about as concerned with her film’s whiteness as Quinto’s character is with “adoption tourism”).
“Tallulah” takes on the daunting task of redeeming bad mothers and honoring complicated women. While Carolyn’s admission that she regretted having her baby is not exactly shocking, the empathy that Heder allows the character in that moment is. “I thought maybe if I had a baby, he’d be interested,” Carolyn says.
As news of the kidnapping spreads, Tallulah’s demise draws ever closer, and with it, the fates of Margot and Carolyn. All three actresses are well cast, but the less ubiquitous Blanchard, with her Kathleen Turner-like rasp and sexuality, is a fresh force to be reckoned with.
Though it falls short of its goals, “Tallulah” is an ambitious first film for Heder. A valiant effort, but ultimately, like its characters’ lives, a missed opportunity.
“Tallulah” premiered on Netflix and in limited theatrical release Friday, July 29th.