Motherhood doesn’t come easy to any of the women in “Tallulah”, but then only two of them are actual mothers. Ellen Page and Allison Janney reunite for the first time since they showed such great chemistry in “Juno”, really a breakout film for both actresses, despite sharing limited time together on screen. But “Tallulah” doesn’t have that film’s easily quotable dialogue or fun cast of characters, and the interactions between Janney and Page are noticeably strained.
To be fair, pretty much everything about Sian Heder’s (“Orange is the New Black” staff writer) directorial debut is laughably contrived, and it doesn’t help that every character is unbearable to watch. Page plays the title character, a thieving, irresponsible transient living in her beat up old van. There’s scarcely a scene when she isn’t stealing something or pulling off some kind of scam. But she also doesn’t want to be alone, so when her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) leaves her to go back home to New York City, she’s understandably upset. Well, for a moment. The very next day she’s worming her way to Nico’s home to try and guilt his mother, Margo (Janney) into giving her some cash.
When Margo angrily kicks her out, Tallulah instead goes to a swanky Manhatan hotel, where she’s mistaken for a hotel employee by dopey, drunken trophy wife Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), who asks Tallulah to watch her 1-year-old daughter while she goes out to cheat on her husband. Carolyn’s a total trainwreck, but she’s rich and the baby obviously needs someone to take care of her, so Tallulah agrees. However she decides to just run off with the kid because she’s grown attached to her after a single night of babysitting.
Or, as the story tries to suggest, it’s because Tallulah has some previously undiscovered maternal instinct and wants to protect the child. None of that rings remotely true. Tallulah returns to Margo, implying that the child is her granddaughter (Nico is still nowhere to be found, by the way. What’s taking him so long to just go home??), so this time she’s accepted into the home with open arms. They bond, of course, and Tallulah teaches Margo how to unwind and not be such a stick-in-the-mud. She has reason for being that way, though. Her ex-husband (John Benjamin Hickey) divorced her for a man (Zachary Quinto in an inexplicable cameo), and now she lives in an apartment full of his stuff. With Tallulah around, Margo has the confidence to hit on the overly chatty doorman who keeps flirting with her.
The whole thing doesn’t come off as remotely authentic. Nevermind that a rich family’s baby being kidnapped right out of a posh Manhattan hotel would be all over the news and probably on Nancy Grace 24/7, but somehow NOBODY involved seems up on the news, or at all suspicious that Tallulah keeps hiding the newspapers. Margo’ss random cluelessness doesn’t make much sense, either; at times she seems to know Tallulah is lying about the child, but then the next scene is like nothing happened.
The inconsistency is a distraction, but worse is that the only character we can possibly care about is the child. Tallulah is a criminal with motives we don’t quite understand; Margo is hopeless and kind of an idiot for falling for Tallulah’s scheme so easily; and Carolyn, who we are repeatedly encouraged to sympathize with, is about as unfit a mother as one could be.
Tallulah and Margo wonder about gravity, and if it weren’t there would they let themselves float away or hold on for dear life. Then, of course, we get a lame fantasy sequence in which that actually happens because the film’s message, such as it is, really needs to be made as obvious as possible. Page and Janney deserve better than what “Tallulah” ultimately gives them to work with. While there are no easy answers when it comes to parenting, and this film doesn’t offer any, “Tallulah” doesn’t bother asking believable questions, either.