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PostPosted: Thu Jul 28, 2016 2:50 pm 
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Flirting with disaster

Sian Heder, who wrote and directed Tallulah, is a young woman associated with the series "Orange Is the New Black," and though she's left some rough patches - an ending that goes nowhere and two bits of magic realism that make no sense - she has given us something wondrous, a first movie that compares with the best early work of Jonathan Demme and David O. Russell. Tallulah, whose linchpin is a crazy, free-spirited young woman played by Ellen Page, has the same hilarious unpredictability and spirit of fun.

Tallulah, known as "Lu," is living in beat-up van and eating out of dumpsters, with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), who's walked out on his mom in Manhattan a couple hears earlier. He's sick of the dumpster-diving, and maybe Lu's patchy hygiene. Her hair is greasy and stringy. When we see her sitting at the back of the van brushing her teeth, legs dangling, after sex, proposing that they go to India ("Isn't that where the Himalayas are?") we understand why the next day he has run out on her. He emphatically does not want to live like a hobo anymore, or go to India. What he wants is to reunite with his estranged mom, and maybe get married and have kids, a path Lu has scornfully dismissed.

The chain of events that follows is unpredictable, and only makes sense in the world of Lu's stubborn nuttiness, which Page wears with utter ease and conviction. She visits Nico's mother, Margo (Allison Janney), who's living alone in a big Manhattan apartment, pretending her academic husband is still there, though he's gone to live with a man. Her companion is a turtle, which won't eat. She slams the door in Lu's face, despite knowing Lu's connection with her son, whom she misses very much.

Lu drifts to a fancy hotel and trawls the hallways eating room service leftovers, when she's pulled into a disheveled, large room by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a trophy wife, who assumes's she's room service, and who is desperately seeking a babysitter for her (naked) one-year-old daughter Madison (Evangeline and Liliana Ellis) so she can hook up with another man. Blanchard is mesmerizing, chewing up the screen in what at firsts seems little more than a great cameo but turns into the very juicy and various role of a woman who in her own way is as nutty and unpredictable as Lu. After observing this lost soul for a while and unwillingly consenting to the babysitting job, which is over her head, Lu impulsively kidnaps the kid. Her unpreparedness for child-rearing is simply outweighed by her conviction that Carolyn is a dangerous and unfit and unwilling mother.

What counts in what follows isn't the specifics so much as their unpredictability and freshness, and how rich and detailed each scene, how it takes us in new directions every time. Happily, Janney and Page stay in the picture, and so does Blanchard. Lu and Margo visit Margo's husband (John Benjamin Hickey) and his new partner (Zachary Quinto), a reunion that ends badly. Everything in this movie teeters, quite nicely, on a borderline between comedy and a sadness that makes what happens real and complicated. Margo starts to think, helped by Lu, that the baby is her granddaughter, and so, in her loneliness, against her better judgment, takes both under her wing.

The baby, incidentally, is no mere cameo or accessory but Ellen Page's full-on costar, figuring in every scene with her for quite a while, her mood-shifts an important part of the unfolding action. This is an unusual and challenging feature of the filmmaking process, related to the fact that Siam Heder based the Carolyn sequence on a short she made ten years ago out of her experiences working as an on-call babysitter for hotels, when she encountered several clearly unfit and unwilling moms.

Another special, unseen, but not insignificant feature of this movie is that it was almost totally an all-female production. This may be Ellen Page's best role since Jason Reitman's Juno, the indie hit that made her famous. For my money Juno impresses while being far too glib and smug a movie. Tallulah, to paraphrase a David O. Russell title, continually flirts with disaster, and in doing so takes us to some interesting and unexpected places. Page is in her element here, and nine years later seems as fresh-faced, independent, and pure now as she was then. There's nobody else like her, and if it takes ten years to find the right part, it's worth the wait.

Janney, who had a smaller relationship with Page in Juno, has filled out and grown wrinkles since her pivotal role - but weren't they all? - in Aaron Sorkin's finest creation, the 1999-2006 series "The West Wing." Of course Janney has had many roles since, but this is a fine one. Since Margo is sad and lonely, Janney's a different, quieter figure here, and she suffers, but she also has a knack for bluster to feed the comedy that flows through Tallulah along with the sadness and chaos. Heder has written a screenplay that's canny in handling of both narrative and setting - notice her great use of an amorous Manhattan doorman and the New York subway, as well as different apartment spaces - but it's mostly a movie about character, and, - with its memorable performances, especially by Page, Blanchard, and Janney - about acting. And that's why loose ends and over-literal or heavy-handedly ironic dialogue moments don't spoil the overall experience too much, and why we can't wait to see Heder make another feature.

Tallulah, 111 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2016, and played at two other festivals and was bought by Netflix. It has its US theatrical and Internet release 29 July 2016.

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