A homeless young drifter, feeling lost after breaking up with her boyfriend, steals a baby from a negligent, rich housewife, triggering a police manhunt. A successful academic, still haunted by her husband’s decision to leave her for a man, gets swept up in the drama when the baby shows up on her doorstep, with its kidnapper claiming it’s her granddaughter. Tallulah, which premiered on Netflix this weekend, has the melodramatic premise of a Lifetime original movie, but it stands out thanks to the graceful, thoughtful characterization of its three protagonists, despite their potential to be monstrous caricatures.
Tallulah is occasionally hampered by its high-stakes plot—any film that starts with a baby kidnapping will have the audience on edge until that’s resolved. But it leverages this crazy decision, made by its free-spirited title character (played by an appropriately crust-punk Ellen Page), to instead tell three very different stories of motherhood that avoid obvious clichés. At its heart, Tallulah is about three women who think themselves unfit for parenthood for wildly different reasons, and while writer-director Sian Heder is unafraid to explore their many flaws, she fortunately refrains from passing judgment or drawing simplistic, moralizing conclusions.
Page’s Tallulah is a living plot device, an infinitely resourceful charmer who sleeps in her van and has convinced her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) to follow her around the country for two years. As the film begins, their relationship falls apart, and Tallulah finds herself in New York, stealing from fancy hotel rooms while posing as a housekeeper. There, she meets Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a permanently wasted socialite who seems obviously neglectful of her one-year-old daughter; in a moment of vigilante justice, Tallulah snatches the baby and begins pretending it’s her daughter.
Though the plot is quite ludicrous, Heder minimizes the soap-opera elements by making the kidnapping feel like a natural progression. It helps that Heder wrote on the first three seasons of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which specializes in such straightforward cause-and-effect storytelling: How many times has that show had to quickly essay the (often bizarre) circumstances that landed one of its main characters in the slammer? Tallulah’s decisions make sense in the moment—Carolyn is a perfect nightmare in her early scenes, chain-smoking and barking at her baby for not being toilet-trained already.
Things settle down when Tallulah finds Nico’s mother Margo (Allison Janney) and presents her with a “granddaughter.” There are few films or television shows that wouldn’t be improved by the appearance of Janney, who can spin even the blandest role into something unique. Like Tallulah, Margo could have been destined to remain a stock character—a 50-something academic who studies the history of marriage, yet is haunted by the collapse of her own, which led to estrangement from her son. The last thing she thinks she needs in her life is the disruptive arrival of the filthy, baby-toting Tallulah; so, of course, it turns out to be just the jolt she’s looking for.
Margo and Tallulah eventually form a bond, and life lessons are learned—that Margo should take more risks, that Tallulah can see the value of family and more traditional domesticity. But every time it seems that Tallulah is swerving into conventional Hallmark-movie territory, Heder does something unexpected. Rather than dropping Carolyn’s story once her baby is taken, the film zooms in on her grief, letting the audience feel the consequences of Tallulah’s actions. In a film of strong performances, Blanchard is probably the biggest surprise—just like her portrayal of a manic, brainwashed cult member in The Invitation, she conjures sympathy for her awful character seemingly from nowhere.
Tallulah is Heder’s first film, adapted from a 2006 short she made called Mother, which drew inspiration from her work as a nanny to Hollywood’s rich and famous. It’s those true-to-life details that Tallulah needs in order to work. Heder sprinkles in some indie-movie tropes—dream sequences and flights of visual fancy that see the film’s characters floating up into the air—but they feel like they don’t belong. Rather, Tallulah’s success is in turning its overblown plot into a simple, grounded tale; in fact, it’s the film’s quietest moments, the slow, empathetic connections built up between its characters, that hit the hardest, and help it linger.