If you can squirm past moments of illogic and on-the-money writing, the indie movie “Tallulah” offers the treat for adventurous moviegoers of seeing three fine actresses playing the hell out of roles filled with the quirks and pathos studio movies reserve for male actors. To state the obvious, “Tallulah” is the work of a female writer-director.
That filmmaker is Siân Heder, a staff writer on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” who makes an accomplished feature debut here with a film that premiered in Sundance earlier in the year.
Heder doesn’t make things easy on herself or her actresses though. These three roles, while juicy to be sure, concern to varying degrees dislikable women all in the throes of crises more or less of their own making.
Then again, this is perhaps what makes them juicy: Their flaws are the most compelling things about them. In the course of the movie actresses Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard are able to peel back layers to help you understand and empathize with women who are more than a little lost.
Page is Tallulah, a drifter by her own choice, preferring to live out of a van and dumpster dive for food, calling to mind the old Kris Kristofferson lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
She’s had a boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), for a couple of years but when he suggests returning to New York and settling down, she freaks out — not her scene. So he splits, leaving her dead broke.
She shrugs and heads for New York anyway, determined to live for and care for nobody if she can help it. Lu, as she prefers to be called, does look up Nico’s mother, Margo (Janney), hoping for maybe a handout, but Margo slams the door in her face. (Which may be the last smart move by Margo in the movie.)
Later, in a fancy midtown hotel, Lu is scavenging for room service scraps when mistaken for a maid by a blowzy trophy wife Carolyn (Blanchard). She is desperate for someone, anyone, to babysit her 1-year-old daughter Madison, so she can flee the room and those annoying momma chores for an extramarital hook-up.
Lu is glad to take the $100 note (and can’t help noticing other cash and jewelry lying all over the place) but knows as much about caring for babies as does Carolyn, who for understandable reasons came without her nanny.
When Carolyn returns that night drunk and and passes out on the bed, Lu makes a rash decision to take the baby to her van overnight. By the time she returns, the hotel lobby crawling with police called in for a kidnapping.
Desperate, she returns to Margo and convinces her this baby actually belongs to her and her wayward son. Margo reluctantly lets the vagabond and child into the university-sponsored apartment she once shared with a husband who has deserted her for a man.
Filmmakers have been saddling shiftless or irresolute adults with young children as far back as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” and King Vidor’s “The Champ” to bring these characters out of their self-absorption or defeatism. So this indie film is merely adopting an old studio screenwriting gimmick.
But Heder makes it much edgier by throwing in the kidnapping angle and making her heroine much rasher for not clearly thinking things out.
Indeed the child becomes the fulcrum of all three women’s despair — Lu’s by forcing her to take care of someone else even if poorly; Margo, a woman deserted by both her husband and son, by reinforcing the meaning of family; and Carolyn, in panic mode as her guilt and husband’s wrath hit her as strongly as does her realization that she does love her child.
For all this to work on in the schematic way Heder intends, there are credibility holes she struggles to paper over. The biggest one, of course, is Lu’s decision to take the baby from the hotel and then settling into a new temporary residence with her boyfriend’s mother and, seemingly, forgetting the child isn’t hers until reminded by news coverage of a missing toddler.
Heder does give Page a speech that’s supposed to convey not only back story but motivation for the irresponsible act, but it’s not clear how many audience members will buy it.
Same thing for Blanchard’s over-the-top bimbo being made a poster child for someone who has brought a life into this world for unseemly reasons. Yet her frantic despair and genuine remorse help cancel some of the harder-to-believe aspects of her character.
As for Margo, Heder has decided to give her audience a dig in the ribs by making her an academic who studies — ready for this? — the history of families. This lays irony on with rather a heavy hand. But Janney overcomes much of this with a dose of self-deprecation and a strength of character that makes her almost a co-star with Page.
There is a half-hearted subplot about Margo’s aborted romance with a Puerto Rican doorman (Felix Solis), that should have been left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, Heder stages an edgy lunch for Margo and Lu with Margo’s ex and his boyfriend (John Benjamin Hickey and Zachary Quinto) that is so bracingly written you understand much about the who, where and why of the marital failure.
Similarly, in smaller but key roles, the NYPD detectives who question Carolyn (David Zayas and “Orange is the New Black’s” Uzo Aduba) speak volumes in their looks of disbelief and tough-minded questions about their doubts concerning this hysterical mother.
So Heder mixes smart comedy and drama with a few questionable scenes and characters into an uneven but nonetheless compelling comic drama about a few days in the troubled lives of three highly flawed characters.
Heder finds her way to a reasonable resolution of everyone’s difficulties in a third act that allows each of the three main characters her own epiphany
So “Tallulah” delivers an acting seminar through a flawed and at times precious screenplay. This is one of those films on a filmmaker’s resume that denotes promise more than accomplishment.
Opens: July 29, 2016 (Netflix)
Production: A Route One Entertainment presentation of a Maiden Voyage Pictures Production in association with Ocean Blue Entertainment
Cast: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, Uzo Aduba, Felix Solis, Frederic Lehne, John Benjamin Hickey, David Zayas, Zachary Quinto
Director-screenwriter: Siân Heder
Producers: Heather Rae, Chris Columbus, Russell Levine, Todd Traina
Executive producers: Eleanor Columbus, Chris Lytton, David Newsom, Charlotte Ubben, Mark Burton, Paull Cho, Ellen Page
Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designer: Sara K. White
Music: Michael Brook
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Editor: Darrin Navarro
Not rated, 111 minutes