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Review: Tallulah (2016)

Tallulah (2016)

Directed by: Sian Heder

Premise: A counter cultural young woman (Ellen Page) crosses paths with a neglectful high society mother (Tammy Blanchard). The young woman absconds with the toddler and tells her ex-boyfriend’s mother (Allison Janney) that the baby is her grandson.

What Works: Tallulah is a story about parenthood, family, and female identity. The film centers upon three characters and their relationship to motherhood. Tallulah, played by Ellen Page, is a young woman who has chosen to live off the grid. At the opening of the movie she lives out of a van and has adopted a freegan lifestyle, subsisting off of the food and consumer products that society has discarded. She actively rejects mainstream society, including motherhood, but upon meeting a middle-aged woman and her neglected child, Tallulah responds maternally and rescues the child from a potentially dangerous situation. The mother, played by Tammy Blanchard, is a train wreck of a human being but there is more to her than that. Blanchard’s character is the opposite of Tallulah in that she is a slave to social expectations and it is strongly implied that her inability to cope with this social pressure is the source of her emotional problems. The central cast of the film is completed by Allison Janney as the mother of Tallulah’s boyfriend. She is an academic specializing in the history of motherhood and family but, ironically, she is going through a divorce and she hasn’t seen her son in two years. Janney’s character is the professional who should have it all and yet she is heartbroken from the disintegration of her traditional nuclear family. Tallulah is an example of a movie that is subversive in a conservative way. It cuts against attempts to liberate women from traditional gender roles and the film suggests that breaking free of society’s expectations is not necessarily going to make us happier. But the storyline of Tammy Blanchard’s character keeps this from being a patriarchal film. If Tallulah were just reinforcing traditional gender roles, Blanchard’s character would be the happiest person in the movie but instead she is the most miserable. Tallulah sketches a complex idea of what it is to be a woman in today’s society and it largely succeeds by portraying characters living in a post-nuclear-family age. The story suggests that emancipation from a patriarchal ideal has its own unique difficulties. This nuanced take on family and motherhood is enhanced by Tallulah’s compelling moral problem. The film presents a scenario in which right and wrong are difficult to define; this is the kind of movie that causes a pleasant discomfort unique to drama in which viewers are forced to wrestle with a complex moral question.  

What Doesn’t: Tallulah works on a familiar story premise. There’s a long tradition of movies in which the protagonist tells a white lie. And as is the case in virtually all of those movies, the lie becomes bigger and more entrenched until it finally becomes impossible to conceal any more. At some level, it’s obvious where Tallulah is going. The relationship between this young woman and her would-be mother-in-law is predicated on deceit and it’s obvious that the truth is going to come out one way or another. The finale of Tallulah is good and appropriate to the movie but this is also the kind of story in which any resolution is going to be somewhat dissatisfying. The plot relies on a few coincidences and unlikely scenarios that strain the credibility of the movie but what’s most dissatisfying about the end of Tallulah is a result of the movie’s complex moral problem. At the conclusion of this movie not everyone gets what they deserve and justice is not necessarily meted out but in that regard the ending of Tallulah is much more truthful than an audience-pleasing Hollywood film.

DVD extras: Only currently available streaming through Netflix.

Bottom Line: Tallulah has great characters played by a slate of terrific actors in a story that is rich with moral ambiguity. It may not satisfy in the way we would typically expect from a mainstream film. Instead it does something more challenging and artistic. 

Episode: #647 (May 14, 2017)