Friday, August 5, 2016

A review of Sian Heder's debut feature, "Tallulah"

Posted By on Fri, Aug 5, 2016 at 12:05 PM

click to enlarge DAVID NEWSOM/NETFLIX
  • David Newsom/Netflix

Maybe because a friend with trusted taste recommended it, maybe because the film featured the ever-reliable Ellen Page, or maybe because I was so impressed with Elizabeth Marvel’s performance as Heather Dunbar in the Netflix series “House of Cards,” I pressed the red right-facing triangle and watched Netflix original film “Tallulah” last night, the feature debut from "Orange is the New Black" writer and producer Sian Heder, and was so taken with the film that I looked it up afterward and made two startling discoveries.

The first is that Elizabeth Marvel did not, in fact, give a stellar performance in “Tallulah.” In fact, she did not give any performance in “Tallulah” at all. That feeling you get when an actor is terribly familiar, but you can’t quite place where you’ve seen her before? That feeling is almost always followed by a flash of recognition, an “Oh yeah! Of course!” Skimming the list of films the actor who played Margo had starred in previously, though, I had no such moment. It’s because Elizabeth Marvel bears a striking resemblance to the woman who did play Margo, Allison Janney (“Veep,” “Robot Chicken,” “American Beauty,” “Strangers with Candy”), and the two —both very fine actors — have apparently long fielded questions about their doppelganger relationship with polite indulgence.

The second discovery was more substantial; that so many of the world’s impressions about the movie thus far have been about whether the plot itself maintained its credibility; whether we could really believe that Tallulah (Ellen Page) stole a rich woman’s baby and shacked up with her ex’s mother Margo (Allison Janney) on the pretense that the baby was Margo’s grandchild, and whether “Tallulah” was simply a reboot of the 2007 film that also starred Ellen Page and Allison Janney, “Juno.”

These are probably all valid impressions and criticisms, but they are somehow not at all what the movie is about; it is not about a babysitting mishap, or some dark depiction of the ways in motherhood goes wrong. At its core, it’s about weight, gravity and the things that tie us down. In that regard, it is close kin to another movie, certainly not “Juno” or “Three Men and a Baby,” but another film that so aptly explored the battle between fetters and freedom — the 1988 film version of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Save for a few fleeting moments at the beginning of the film in which Tallulah and her boyfriend Nico storm their way through a bar intending to rob it but leaving with only a fifth of whiskey, every single character in the film can be traced to his/her relationship to his/her own weight/weightlessness.

Tallulah is introduced as the ultimate feather; a freewheeling vagabond living hand-to-mouth with her boyfriend Nico in a van, stealing what they can and recovering abandoned meals from dumpsters and dive bars. Driven by her own horror after stumbling into rich woman Carolyn’s (Tammy Blanchard) hotel room, where Carolyn’s baby is being ignored in favor of booze and extramarital sex, Tallulah steals the baby, Madison, only because she can’t bear to leave her without supervision. For Tallulah, the weight she’s worked so hard to shed is foisted upon her by chance, later manifested through parking tickets, tire boots and her own criminal history. She bears it with the demeanor of a child raising a child for most of the film (perhaps the element that connects this film most clearly to “Juno”), fumbling to match Madison with a diaper size by asking another mom in the store how much her baby weighs. In a dream scene, Tallulah begins to float away into the night sky, into a presumably blissful ether, and grounds herself by choice when she grabs onto the handle of the van she lives in.

For Carolyn, who later admits her deep and daily resentment of Madison, confessing that she “waited for that mommy feeling to come” in vain, Madison is that unwanted weight; the child that’s robbed her of her sex appeal toward her husband and the leverage her beauty affords her with wealthy men outside her broken marriage.

For Margo (Allison Janney), a self-help writer who takes in Tallulah and Madison under the false pretense that Madison is, in fact, her grandchild and not a stolen baby, the weight is essentially a mirror version of Carolyn’s unrequited love, but one shrouded in vintage wine and academia rather than in Spanx and vodka tonics. Margo’s love is unrequited in all directions: She was abandoned by her husband when he fell in love with a younger man, and by her son when he took off with Tallulah two years prior. She’s pulled toward Earth by the gravity of her unrequited love for her ex, and by the decaying nature of the friendships they once mutually shared.

In “Tallulah,” emotional intimacy is symbolized by laying horizontally with someone, as Margo and Tallulah do in Margo’s high-end bed as they collapse into fits of laughter at the absurd sadness that, eventually, everyone dies — and that the one who does first leaves those around them wrecked with grief. Tallulah falls asleep with her new infant charge, and Nico and Tallulah lay in post-coitus dreamland before he leaves her without warning. In a lovely and surreal scene, with Tallulah missing, Margo revisits the park where she and Tallulah once lay together on the grass waxing about regret with Madison playing nearby, the grass beside her now visibly tamped down, leaving the physical evidence of that moment and heightening Tallulah’s absence, as Margo levitates a single leaf above her hand.

Yes, there’s some heavy-handedness in Ellen Page’s “well, I don’t know too much about kids” routine early on, and were it not for Tammy Blanchard’s ability to channel Marilyn Monroe with her devastating looks and bombshell eyelashes, I might be rolling my eyes a bit more at the “spoiled sex kitten” trope that is her interpretation of Carolyn, but I’m not convinced those moments are dramatic dealbreakers that cheapen the film. Given the chance, though, I would absolutely swap out the song played during the closing credits for Vic Chesnutt’s “Gravity of the Situation.”

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