Movie Review: Tallulah (2016)

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Rating: A-/Just more evidence of Netflix’s growing legitimacy as a original film and television distributor. She might have her share of naysayers, but I’ve always liked Ellen Page, ever since she made a lasting impression in the Oscar-nominated but divisive indie comedy-drama Juno (which I thought was an excellent movie; there, I said it. Go ahead and start telling me how stupid and wrong I am, come at me bro!)

Some will say that Page’s talent is confined to one type of role, that of a glib, sarcastic teenager, but I find her a powerful and surprisingly versatile actress who makes a bad career decision every once in a while (X-Men: The Last Stand, anybody?), but is overall a legitimate actress worth taking seriously. Nobody can watch her breakout role in the disturbing psychological thriller Hard Candy and tell me this girl’s devoid of talent.

Okay, now that I’ve conveyed my opinion on Page, let’s get down to business. Tallulah is a difficult movie to watch at times, because of it’s innately sad and damaged characters and the psychologically strenuous direction the story takes, but it’s a powerful character study and a outstanding showcase for it’s actors. It’s a female-centered story, focusing primarily on three troubled women and the tricky business of motherhood and adult responsibility, but it’s definitely not a chick flick in the way that Steel Magnolias or Bridget Jones’ Diary is a chick flick.

There is no bogged-down sentimentality, no desperate attempt to make you empathize with or fall in love with  any given character. All the characters are utterly troubled and flawed, in other words, my kind of movie! There are moments where you are totally unsure of who you should be rooting for, and that ambiguity is just what makes it an effective and powerful film. They say ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’, never has that been truer than for hard-living vagrant Lu (Ellen Page,) who steals a infant and spends the rest of the movie reaping the consequences of that drastic action.

Just to let you know, those with a significant sensitivity to themes involving child endangerment and neglect would be better off passing on this movie. Lu is a young woman, practically a child, who is living in her van and down on her luck. Much by accident, while loitering outside a hotel room stealing food from a serving tray placed outside the door for a guest, she is invited in by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard,) a woman who is renting a room in order to have an affair away from the prying eyes of her husband and dragged her two-year-old daughter along with her, lacking a person to care for the child while she got up to her escapades.

Carolyn, to put it simply, is the mother of nightmares. She thinks her toddler is the proverbial thorn in her side anchoring her to a life of boredom and domesticity, and she doesn’t really seem to care if the girl lives or dies, wantonly disregarding her safety as she gets shit-faced and prepares to get it on with a man who appears to be a complete stranger. When we first meet the two-year-old, Maddie, she is completely naked, playing with a beer bottle, and soiling the floor.

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Carolyn doesn’t know Lu from Adam, but she assumes that she’s a hotel employee and leaves the kid in her care. When she comes home blitzed and passes out on the bed, Lu impulsively takes Maddie and coerces her ex’s mother Margo (Allison Janney) into letting her stay. Lu is a complete mess and an unforgivably rude houseguest, and the reserved divorcee Margo lets her stay out of concern for Maddie, who Lu tries to pass off as her daughter. From the beginning, you know things are not going to end well and the likelihood of Lu getting away with her crime is slim to none, but like a trainwreck, you just can’t look away. Slowly, Margo and Lu form a complex relationship. They’ve both lived lives marked by disappointment and isolation, but now, at the very least, they’ve got each other.

  Tallulah‘s power is derived from the fact that it doesn’t take a simplistic, black-and-white moral stance, or try to beat us over the head with it’s admittedly compelling dramatic plot arc. Lu isn’t a born mother who immediately bonds with Maddie and gives her the good life the baby undoubtedly deserves. She’s impulsive, irrational, and frightened, and while she’s definitely a more loving and concerned caregiver than Carolyn (come to think of it, the Manson family, Michael Jackson, literally anyone would be better at meeting the needs of an infant than Carolyn,) it’s hard at times to watch Lu’s incompetency as a surrogate caregiver, and Margo is probably the main reason the baby stays in one piece at all.

The relationships between the characters are fresh and unpredictable, and while the characters aren’t immediately likable, they’re emphathizable and unapologetically human. Allison Janney is a very underrated actress; and she imbues Margo with the right amount of reservation and coldness while still making her a multi-dimensional and sympathetic character. It’s funny to see her playing the mother of Page’s boyfriend nine years after she played her step-mother in another movie about motherhood, Juno.

Janney clearly needs to be discussed and appreciated more. Moreover, while my mom didn’t like the ending of Tallulah because she thought it was ‘inconclusive,’ I found it to be a tender and above all, believable way to end a story that admittedly wasn’t going to end on a blissful note. While on first glance it might seem disappointing, look closer, and you might realize that they ended it in a highly powerful and effective way.

The bittersweet and transformative power of Lu and Carolyn’s friendship is brought to life in one final, striking image. Excursions into magical realism/ fantasy sequences in an otherwise realistic movie can feel awkward and forced, but the recurring symbolic image of a woman holding on for dear life as she goes floating into the stratosphere, while everything else in her environment staying utterly ordinary and mundane, is a effective one.

It’s not a high-octane action film, or a particularly happy and uplifting story, but if Tallulah can get together three sometimes overlooked actresses and get an amazing performance out of every single one of them, it must be doing something right. It’s consistent avoidance of schmaltz and melodrama is highly admirable, and it’s the first really good movie Ellen Page has been in in a long time. In a crowd of Netflix original movies of varying qualities, Tallulah is definitely one to watch.

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