We all want to belong somewhere, and preferably, with someone.
But life is not always that kind or generous, leaving people like Tallulah aka “Lu” (Ellen Page), abandoned at age 6 by a mother to a life spent scrabbling on the margins of society, adrift and alone.
The eponymous protagonist of the Sundance favourite, Tallulah, written and directed with great sensitivity and insight by Sian Heder, Lu is the sort of person who loudly proclaims that she has no need for anyone in her life and that’ll cope just fine by herself thank you.
But the truth is that the louder and more emphatically you proclaim something, the more likely it is that you believe, deep down, the complete opposite to be true, and so it is with the film’s protagonist who is devastated when her boyfriend of two years, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) abandons her and the ramshackle van which is their home, one night in an empty carpark.
With the one person she felt connected to in the world gone – tellingly though when Nico proclaims his love for her, she stays silent, unable or unwilling to make a similar declaration – Lu sets off for New York City in search of Nico’s mother Margo (Allison Janney), the one person who might be able to help her through yet another dark chapter in her life.
But when she meets Margo, she is unceremoniously turned away by a woman caught in a web of her own personal problems, who feels as if everyone she has ever loved has abandoned her, including the still-missing Nico and her ex-husband Stephen (John Benjamin Hickey) who left her three years earlier for the handsome Andreas (Zachary Quinto).
Lu is fazed by this in one sense – she’s experienced far worse and her life is one series of rejected moments after the other – and she immediately goes back to a life sustained by stolen credit cards, dumpster-sourced food and cadging for money.
It’s while she’s going from breakfast tray to breakfast tray in one of the nicer hotels in the city, scrounging the food left behind by the wealthy guests, that she encounters Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), the wife of a well-off businessman who is more attached to alcohol, drugs and approval from adulterous lovers than to her own almost two year old daughter Maddy.
Carolyn is not a natural mother; in fact she struggles with functioning as a human being in general, but it is the mysteries of motherhood that elude her and so she leaves Maddy, with little to no thought, with Lu while she goes on a date.
A series of events, driven in large part by Lu’s inability to see another child unloved, neglected and abandoned, lead to Lu taking Maddy with her and showing up at Margo’s sprawling apartment that she is in danger of losing in the divorce.
The connection that develops between Lu and Margo might look at first blush as the stuff of a movie of the week quicky; but in the hands of two talented actors like Page and Janney, subtle, believable nuances creep in and we can believe that two quite different women could have something in common after all.
The link is, of course, the need to belong, a dynamic that binds the two of them together in ways that neither expect in the first few rocky days when Lu is passing Maddy off as Nico’s daughter.
It’s that impelling drive to belong, to have someone to call your own, that drives the motivations and actions of all three of the main characters in the film.
Heder takes the time in a screenplay that manages to both takes it time and yet pack in a lot of emotional truth to present all three women, and in fact even the supporting characters such as Stephen, Andreas and Nico, as full-formed, deeply flawed people who are simply trying to do the best they can.
It’s refreshing to see a film like Tallulah step away from the easy reflex to use barely-etched archetypes to propel the narrative and spent time time and effort giving each character richly-detailed hues.
The message is, as Margo remarks at one point when Carolyn is bemoaning her lack of willingness to be a mother, a realisation that fills her with guilty remorse, that all of us are “horrible … we’re just people.”
It’s not an excuse so much as an admission that for all the good intentions we might when we set out in life – Margo for one imagined her life as a succession of blissful domestic moments, none of which bore any resemblance to her current circumstances – that we often end up a million miles away from the life we imagined.
For some people like Lu, that was a given from the get-go; for others like Margo and Carolyn, who share a particularly touching scene near the film’s end, it’s bound up in the painful understanding that life is, as the film’s poster proclaims, “a real mother” much of the time.
The choice is, of course, either staying mired in that mindset, which Lu says is the only real option (an admission not even she believes with any real conviction) or moving on and grasping those rare opportunities that come along to change things and make something better of life.
That’s not to say that Tallulah is all sunshine and roses – it sports an ending for instance that is more possibility than certainty – but by its all-too-real finale, the bond between Lu and Margo is far stronger than either of them ever expected it to be, and we leave them confident that at the very least, both have found someone with whom they can belong.