On paper, Orange Is The New Black writer Sian Heder’s directorial debut, the darkly comic drama Tallulah, reads a lot like a weird, soap-opera sequel to Juno. It’s got Allison Janney. It’s got Ellen Page. It’s even got a baby that drives much of the movie’s plot, but that’s where the similarities end.
Juno is a bitingly smart comedy about the pressures of teen pregnancy. A coming of age tale full of zingers and heartbreak. Heartbreak’s in Heder’s Tallulah too, but Page isn’t playing a knocked-up teen and the movie certainly isn’t about angst and adolescence. Instead, Tallulah is a look at what happens when a life you’ve committed years to, a relationship you’ve given body and soul to, and an ideology you’ve built your very being on all come crashing down.
Page plays Lu — an aimless drifter content to shack up with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) in the back of their grungy van. The pair Dumpster dive for food, hit up truckers for free shower tickets and dream of hiking the Himalayan mountains in India. Well, Lu does. Nico, a kid from a fairly affluent family in Manhattan, is ready to come back home, settle down, find a respectable job and make amends with his mother, Margo (Janney).
Nico soon ditches Lu who chugs her beat-up van across the country to find him. When she isn’t smoking a joint in Washington Square — the place where the two first met — she wanders the city, roaming the halls of a fancy hotel in order to score some left-over room service. She’s caught by a guest — a seemingly-frazzled, possibly intoxicated woman named Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) who invites her to watch her toddler while she goes on a romantic rendezvous — one her rich husband certainly wouldn’t approve of.
At first, it’s easy to hate Carolyn. She’s the typical bored Beverly Hills housewife. But slowly, as the rollers fall out, the make-up runs and she becomes increasingly depressed over the failed state of her marriage and her inability to be a good mother, Blanchard makes us sympathize with her. Sure, she lets her baby wander out onto balconies, pee in the middle of the floor and cart around a beer like it’s her own baby bottle but it’s because she has no idea what’s she’s doing. In many ways, she still has the mindset of a child herself. No one ever said this whole motherhood thing would be so hard. Women only gush about pre-natal yoga classes and the value of going all-organic and how breastfeeding is such a beautiful bonding experience — the cold reality of motherhood is much more difficult, something Carolyn’s only now starting to realize.
Lu, on the other hand, begins to realize that Carolyn is more of a danger to her own child than anything else, so when the neglectful mom comes home drunk and passes out on the hotel bed, she swipes the baby and heads back to her trusty van. Why she doesn’t just spend the night in the hotel room is a bit of a head-scratcher, but she does the right thing and brings the baby back the next morning — only to be met with a lobby full of cops.
This is where the film strays just a bit too dangerously into Lifetime movie territory.
Lu shows up on her missing boyfriend’s mom’s doorstep. Margo is a neurotic mess of a woman — an author who pens books on the history of marriage culture only to struggle accepting her own impending divorce when her husband of however many decades turns out to be gay. The irony is ripe and unforgiving — as are the people closest to Margo who see her husband’s betrayal as a “brave choice.”
Police manhunts, Uzo Aduba popping up as a social worker handling the missing child case, trippy dream sequences and flashbacks and an obligatory subway chase — hey, this story is set in New York, you should expect this by now — all ensue.
Janney and Page have stellar chemistry. If anything, this movie just confirms it’s a shame they didn’t share more screen-time in Juno. Their characters are polar opposites — Lu a free spirit, Margo a woman with a plan that’s veered worryingly off course. Their relationship progresses in the predictable way. They clash, they bond over babies and bad paintings and wine, one teaches the other how to let go, the other teaches one the importance of relying on those who care about you. It’s easy to see why they are the way they are; Lu had a bad childhood and Margo had a f*cked up marriage. It’s also easy to see how they’ll end up.
Despite some seemingly extraordinary coincidences, Heder makes the story work and Paige turns in one of her best performances since, well, she played that other woman panicking about having a baby. The film’s a bit uneven at times — Jonigkeit’s character often feels out of place and unnecessary to the story, which is saying something since he’s the whole reason the two women are together. There are also some pretty implausible happenings that take place, ones you might initially scoff at before grudgingly moving forward with the plot.
Maybe the best way to describe Tallulah is to detail a scene that’s stuck with me for a long time after watching the movie. Margo, who’s been living in her ex-husband’s apartment, comes home to find her pet turtle has died. She picks him up out of the tank, lays him on a towel on the table, stares at him for a while and then just cries.
It’s heartbreaking. But it’s also hard not to laugh a little, too. There are a lot of moments like that in Heder’s movie — events and conversations that are depressingly funny. I wouldn’t call it dark comedy, because I don’t think it’s intentional or really disturbing in any way. If anything, it’s kind of a commentary on life: things suck, people suck, moms don’t take care of their kids, wives give up everything for husbands who don’t love them and people shut themselves off because they’ve been hurt before. It’s f*cking sad, but maybe laughing about it a little can help to make it just bearable.