In the last year, Netflix has expanded its focus on original programming from acclaimed series like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and Daredevil into full-length feature films. From the harrowing drama of Beasts of No Nation to the throwback silliness of Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, the streaming service has demonstrated an eye for material with a built-in appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences, even if some have balked at their eagerness to enter a multi-picture deal with Adam Sandler. Luckily, Tallulah is perhaps one of the more well-received Netflix original films to date.
Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page stars as the title character, a vagabond who chooses to live out of her van on an indefinite cross-country road trip. However, when her boyfriend (Evan Jonigkeit) leaves her side, a chain of events is set in motion that sees Tallulah developing ties with both an abandoned toddler and a lonely author (Allison Janney). The comedy/drama marks the feature directorial debut for writer/director Sian Heder, and her experience crafting strong female characters and striking a tonal balance on Netflix’s own Orange Is the New Black (for which she has written since the show’s inception) certainly bears fruit here.
In fact, the performances by Page and Janney – both indie veterans who previously shared the screen in Oscar-winning 2007 release Juno and 2013 film Touchy Feely – anchor this story emotionally and narratively, and the film represents some of the actresses’ best work in years.
While Tallulah embodies a free-spirited vibe and clandestine emotional frailty that may remind viewers of Page’s most famous role, the star proves once again her ability to create compelling, albeit flawed, characters that audiences can’t help but root for. Similarly, Janney effortlessly elevates every frame she fills, serving as Tallulah‘s voice of reason and its most sympathetic character. Also, we would be remiss not to mention Tammy Blanchard’s supporting role as a selfish housewife who has a come-to-Jesus revelation over the course of the film.
While the movie succeeds in creating two strong lead characters in Page and Janney, its story fails to match that achievement. The character-driven focus is indeed something to be celebrated, but Tallulah – based in part on Heder’s own 2006 short film Mother – ultimately doesn’t come together in a wholly satisfying way. The character arcs are all relatively straightforward (in fact, it’s pretty clear early on where the film is going). Yet, despite the fact that Tallulah has some pointed things to say about parenthood and relationships in general, it never truly comes to any profound conclusions about them, falling back on simple answers and contributing little to the discourse as a whole.
Heder may hold a Peabody Award for TNT series Men of a Certain Age, but what Tallulah demonstrates is that her approach to storytelling may be a better fit for the serialized development offered by television. Had the film’s story been told over a dozen or so hours of character interaction and narrative development, Tallulah would likely have offered a more gratifying viewing experience. As it stands, the film serves primarily as a showcase for its three main stars as well as proof positive that Heder herself has as strong a knack for direction as she does long-form storytelling.
Even though Tallulah might not universally wow audiences, it does mark a significant step in legitimizing Netflix as a home for ambitious indie fare. More and more, the movie business is becoming segmented, with $200 million blockbusters squeezing films with more modest budgets out of wide theatrical releases, and recent years have seen many critically praised efforts debut on-demand or in just a handful of theaters before doing so.
With such indie darling stars and challenging subject matter, Tallulah proves that Netflix is a bonafide sanctuary of these kinds of films. So regardless of the fact that the finished product isn’t one of the year’s best, its mere existence to today’s effects-driven marketplace deserves celebration. If Netflix centers on more projects like this one, it’s only a matter of time before the streaming service lands a Best Picture contender.
Ellen Page and Allison Janney turn in compelling performances as two very different but equally troubled women, but Tallulah's story doesn't do justice to its cast.