Writer-director Sian Heder’s Tallulah has an impressive set of genes on the matriarchal side. Heder was a writer and story editor on Orange Is the New Black, and co-stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney play roles much like the ones they so memorably embodied in Juno—Page as a sardonic young woman grappling with unplanned motherhood and Janney as the no-nonsense mother figure who helps her. But Tallulah, a kind of neofeminist Lifetime movie, is high drama writ in black crayon, lacking either Orange Is the New Black’s moral complexities or Juno’s sweet-and-sour sass.
Relevant facts about each character are dutifully punched out, in earnest speeches or actions that are often wildly overdrawn. Every time Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), an emotional black hole of a new mother, opens her mouth, she broadcasts her tragic lack of self-esteem and dependence on male approval. And when she invites the homeless Tallulah (Page) into her hotel room after finding her scrounging from a room service tray left in the hall, then insists that the gobsmacked young woman look after her one-year-old daughter, Maddie, while she goes out on a date, Carolyn comes off not as a plausibly unfit mother, but a plot point highlighted in neon.
Everyone’s needs and neuroses fit together as neatly as puzzle pieces, en route to a happy ending that feels both inevitable and utterly unconvincing. The wounds Tallulah sustained from being abandoned as a child compel her to try to save Maddie, impulsively kidnapping the baby when her trainwreck of a mother comes back to the room wasted. Meanwhile, Maddie’s vulnerability melts Tallulah’s defenses, making her kinder, gentler, and more responsible. The same dynamic plays out between Tallulah and her ex-boyfriend’s mother, Margo (Janney), an embittered widow who was abandoned first by her husband and then by her son. Margo’s loneliness (hammered home by a few too many shots of her pet turtle) and thwarted maternal love make her an ideal mother surrogate when Tallulah shows up at Margo’s apartment with Maddie, and the young pair’s evident neediness does to the older woman’s defenses what Maddie’s did to Tallulah’s. “You can stay for one night. One!” Margo tells Tallulah sternly before what becomes, of course, an extended stay.
Janney and Page extract a few genuinely moving moments from the clunky script. When, at the end of a long string of misadventures and lies, Tallulah tells Margo, “I’m so sorry,” and Margo answers, “I know you are,” the actresses’ grave intensity gives their on-the-nose exchange considerable poignancy. Uzo Aduba also locates the humanity in her underwritten character, a heavily pregnant Child Protective Services caseworker assigned to Carolyn who functions as Tallulah’s one-woman Greek chorus. The actress’s empathetic gaze and gravelly purr infuse even her most sanctimonious speeches with warmth, temporarily redeeming this well-meaning but stiffly formulaic film.