Thursday, 1 December 2016

Movie Review: Tallulah (2016)


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A common misguided opinion when it comes to most media is that the moral fiber of the characters translates to the quality of the work; or, in layman’s terms, having hateful people as our leads means that the film sucks. Now, even though I’ve echoed similar ideas in the past like with the Eli Roth films that I’ve reviewed on here before, I want to try and clear up that misconception. It is possible to make good stories using not-so-good characters; the entire popularity of shows like Seinfeld exists because of that very reasoning. The problem is that the characters require the right thematic framing to work. If they’re conveyed as awful people and we’re not supposed to sympathize with them, it shows that the creator at least knows what the reality of the people in the work is. It’s when these same character traits are portrayed as something we’re supposed to agree with that things start to fall apart; unless there’s extenuating circumstances involved, finding sympathy in the loathsome is a difficult task. It’s because of this that I feel Bad Santa 2 works as well as it does… and why I honestly think that this film doesn’t. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself; we should start from the beginning. This is Tallulah.

The plot: Tallulah (Ellen Page), a van-dwelling American drifter, has just broken up with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) and doesn’t know what to do next. Out of desperation, she tries to connect with Nico’s mother Margo (Allison Janney) and, in the process, ends up taking the child of drunkard socialite Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard) and raising it herself. However, the theft has not gone unnoticed and, even as she starts to connect with Margo, it seems that keeping her dirty secret will prove tougher than she thought.

The cast here is really good, even though the casting in places feels a little too obvious. Page is the millennial child-like empress of the indie flick, so her role as the impossible dreamer fits her quite snugly and, even with certain discrepancies concerning her character, she makes good use of it. Janney is one of those actors that I will always be happy to see getting work, as she’s always been able to juggle goofy and graceful with ease and this is no exception. I don’t know how but, between the two of them, they manage to run the gamut of potential interpretations of ‘female-to-female relationship’ without any of it coming across as jarring or exploitive. Blanchard is probably the most obviously rough around the edges in terms of role, but she definitely works with even the weirder lines she’s given to make for what is, at the very least, an engaging performance. The male actors, like John Benjamin Hickey as Margo’s ex-husband, Jonigkeit as Nico and Zachary Quinto as… well, an emotional monkey wrench, basically, are all fine but, for reasons I’ll get into, these guys matter a hell of a lot less than they should.

It’s indie quirk time again, only this time around it seems even more out-of-place than it usually is to begin with. I mean, I know that this sort of fare is basically Ellen Page’s wheelhouse by this point, but wow, it just juts itself into the story when it clearly isn’t needed., Now, don’t mistake ‘unnecessary’ for ‘bad’ as , for the most part, it’s actually pretty tolerable. The main example of this is through Nico and his relationship with Lu, as their conversation about how they plan on getting to India feels cut from the same awkward cloth. He may occasionally get into “oh, that’s so precious” territory, but overall, it manages to fit as well as it possibly could, given the circumstances. But then we get into the film’s bookends and… dear God, this is trite. Basically, it involves Lu musing about how lucky they are to have gravity, combined with certain scenes that are basically defying the laws of gravity. It actively felt like the film was screaming at me “Get it?! Because she’s a free spirit!” and, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not so receptive to incredibly blunt and shouty subtext. If anything, it comes across like some form of self-parody, and not particularly fitting self-parody either. Then again, considering what else is going on within the story, maybe this being self-parody is just wishful thinking on my part.

It has been a very, very long time since I’ve seen movie characters this impossibly driven by impulsivity, a trait shared by all three of the female leads. Whether it’s seemingly small actions like soaking divorce papers or much larger instances like child abduction, it genuinely feels like these three are mentally incapable of taking that step back thinking before they do something. Now, to be fair, their actions feel consistent concerning the characters making them and this is where the scripting really helps because these are very well-defined characters. Between Lu’s lack of knowledge about how the real world works, Margo’s discontent as a result of her divorce and even Carolyn’s alcoholism and general confusion about the direction of her own life, it is at least feasible to understand why these people are doing the things that they do.

However, just because it’s understood why these actions are being done doesn’t make any easier to like the people committing them. In fact, the fact that they’re clearly this thoughtfully-written might make that worse because these might be the most loathsome hat trick of a main cast in a very long while, possibly rivaling that of Cabin Fever. Them being well-written hurts it as you can tell that the film is taking time out to flesh them out, and yet they’re fleshed out to be as wholly unlikeable as each other; yeah, it’s not just the child kidnapper who is intolerable here. Tallulah almost feels like a deconstruction of the traditional pixie dream girl, shown to be every bit of a sociopath as you would expect from that kind of person in the real world. Margo is weirdly passive-aggressive, not to mention bigoted to the point where bitterness due to separation isn’t enough to justify it; especially when the brunt of her remarks, that being her ex-husband, is thinking clearer and making more sense than her and Lu combined. And then of course there’s Carolyn, who may be the most obviously hateful but that doesn’t mean she’s any better, what with her flip-flopping attitude towards her own friggin’ child. Now, like I said before, if this was framed properly and meant to have an actual point to it, these characters would be fine. However, since this as far as I can tell is meant to be a look into innate maternity and motherhood, the audience is meant to be on their side. If anything, the men in their lives are artificially painted as being the bad guys and the reason why these women are the way they are. At the risk of angering feminists (and between this and my last review, why should I stop now?), I find something incredibly distasteful in pushing all your own admitted problems onto the opposite gender just to make yourself out to be the victim. Hell, when the inevitable ending comes around and we’re meant to feel sad in some fashion, all I felt was that justice had been served and it couldn’t have come soon enough.

All in all, this is a story about a freeloader having to learn the basic rules of modern-day existence the hard way. Such a shame that writer/director Sian Heder is trying to make us learn about her and the other characters the hard way, as this is an incredibly uneasy viewing experience. While I give credit that the writing shows a lot of effort in its construction, and there are even a few legitimately warm moments here and there, the feeling ingrained in the narrative that I’m supposed to feel for people who are clearly in the wrong makes this more infuriating than insightful or humourous. I’m ranking this as worse than the Cabin Fever remake as, even though the characters in that film were probably worse than the ones here, at least that film knew that they were horrible people and never asked us to feel sorry for them. However, since I concede that very definite effort was put into this (maybe a little too much), it goes above Ride Along 2, which showed a complete absence of effort.

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