Tallulah: Ellen Page Doesn’t Play Gay, But You Should Watch It Anyway

Sundance darling Tallulah has all the makings of an indie hit. It’s full of complicated relationships, dark and pedestrian secrets, and a plot driven by characters who are at once sympathetic and kind of awful. It successfully avoids clichés — there are no manic pixie dreams to be found, for example — and the original writing combines with an all-star cast to create a movie worth seeing on the big screen or on Netflix, where it was released Friday.

Throughout the film, we don’t know much about Tallulah, or Lu’s, past, except that everyone who was supposed to take care of her let her down. We meet Lu (Ellen Page) as a drifter in her 20s who has nothing but a van and a boyfriend, Nico, who says ‘I love you’ before they fight and he leaves to make his way back to New York to find his corner of Washington Square Park and his mother.

When Lu wakes up to find him gone, a new part of her journey begins. She beats Nico to his home and his mother Margo (Allison Janney) slams the door in her face. In a short interaction, the curiosity and tension between Margo and Lu is clear. But they have no common ground except a boy who ran away from them both. The link is based in pain, and it’s simply not enough — not yet.

This is where I should mention that this isn’t a May-December lesbian romance. Janney and Page revive and expand upon the chemistry they shared as step-mother and daughter in Juno. But it is a movie about women — about women who have been abandoned, who find each other, who hurt each other deeply. It blows the Bechdel test out of the water; the men who have betrayed these women are largely foils for their own self-discovery and growth. The film adeptly interrogates class, though not race — all the main characters are white, though Uzoamaka Aduba does a beautiful job in a supporting role as a social worker.

Janney and Page are joined by Tammy Blanchard, who plays Carolyn, a new mother and trophy wife who leaves her toddler Maddie with Lu in a hotel room while she gets wasted and leaves to hook up with a relative stranger.  Long story short, Lu feels Maddie isn’t safe with Carolyn and steals away with her in the middle of the night and goes back to Margo’s baby in hand, claiming she is hers and Nico’s. Margo takes them in, and she and Lu slowly become something like friends.

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Although Margo and Lu are the main draw, there are a lot more elements to this movie. Lunch with Margo’s gay ex-husband and his new partner is one of the best scenes in the film, sketching a whole universe and providing a window into Margo and her husband’s marriage without trying to give more information than the audience can handle. There’s the undercurrent of disappointment created by Nico’s silence and absence, and the fear of Carolyn’s husband’s emotional abuse that helps explain her behavior — that and some very obvious but unnamed postpartum depression. There’s the mix of tenderness and mistrust that grows between Lu and Margo. And most of all, there is Lu’s lie and the ways it begins to unravel.

The story is rich, and the writing and direction — headed up by Sian Heder, who writes for Orange Is The New Black — feel balanced and believable, even when the story dips a bit into fantasy. And the trio of impeccable and perfectly-cast actresses form the foundation of a moving film about three women trying to get free from their mistakes and disappointments.

The film soared at Sundance, and now it is available for streaming on Netflix.

Audrey is a writer, a Texan and a sometimes-heretical Presbyterian. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Audrey on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Audrey has written 138 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. So. I’m not saying gay people can’t play straight, because that’s patently false, but. Let’s be honest. Even when Ellen Page doesn’t play gay, she plays a little bit gay. Like even in her straightest roles there’s something about her face and manner that says “MY DRY WIT AND GENERAL DEMEANOR WILL CUT THROUGH YOUR MISOGYNY LIKE A HOT KNIFE THROUGH BUTTER, THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.”

  2. Just finished watching the movie.
    It was really slow, but I think appropriately to give the audience time to digest the all-too-real feelings we have about doing sh*tty things in the name of being a hero. And no matter how heroic we deem our behavior to be, we’re all still trying to get by. As Margo Says in the movie, “we’re all human.” We’re never quite as heroic or quite as horrible as we me think we are. Because we’re human. And there’s only so many people we’d can save, including ourselves.

  3. Trigger warning to my fellow readers.

    If you grew up with an abusive or unattached mother, this movie may trigger you badly.

    It destroyed me. I was Madison and Tallulah. The ending was horrifying to me. I’ve had nightmares. It will hurt fresh for awhile.

    I understand that trigger warnings are annoying to many, but some of us have nowhere to go and no one to talk to about this. When we are re-traumatized, we’ve just got to breath and breath and we’ll lose a day… or weeks… of our lives gathering our pieces back up, and grieving the mothers and family we’ll never have.

    I love movies like this in a way. It reminds me I’m not alone in my trauma.

    But then the movie ends and I am curled up alone in my bed in the night, and in the morning, and in the secrets, and on Thanksgiving day, and when I’m sick, and on the back pew at my grandmother’s funeral, and when I’m crying on a couch alone after a movie because it’s all come flooding back and I hadn’t expected it and once it began I was desperately hoping for a resolution in a fictional story that only sort of comes. .

  4. May-*December*! Wash your mouth out!

    Seriously, though – women already put up with enough ageist nonsense in Hollywood, without conflating someone Alison Janney’s age with a Woody Allen character.

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