It’s a mystery as to why “Tallulah” is sneaking into town without the benefit of press screenings or publicity. Oh, wait, it’s not: Since Netflix snapped up this plotty but winning charmer at Sundance last January, that means you’ll be able to stream it at home, too. But see it at the West Newton, if you can. The theater deserves your support and so do the film’s lead actresses.
Ellen Page and Allison Janney played stepmother and daughter in Page’s breakthrough, “Juno” (2007), and they play beautifully together as two women battling and bonding over a toddler who belongs to neither of them. Page’s Tallulah, or Lu, is a homeless dumpster diver traveling the country with Nico (Evan Jonigkeit), a poor little rich boy who gets homesick and heads back to Manhattan. Following him there, Lu sneaks into a fancy hotel to steal some room service and is mistaken for a baby sitter by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a hard-drinking trophy wife who’s a Worst Case Scenario as a mother.
The movie is asking us to buy a lot at this point, and it asks even more when Lu impulsively “rescues” Carolyn’s little girl (sweetly played by twins Evangeline and Liliana Ellis). The police call it kidnapping, of course, and a panicky Lu turns up with baby on the doorstep of Nico’s mother, Margo (Janney), who immediately assumes she has become a grandmother.
Given these contortions, it’s remarkable that “Tallulah” doesn’t cave in to forced farce. Well, it almost does in a cringe-y scene in which the newly divorced Margo tries to seduce her doorman (Felix Solis). But first-time writer-director Sian Heder — Cambridge-raised and a Rindge grad — has written and produced many episodes of “Orange Is the New Black.” She has a finely tuned ear for the lies and truths women tell each other and themselves. For most of its running time, the movie works as a sharp, generous human comedy about fear of family (among other things), with Page once again reminding us that she’s one of the most deft and underutilized actors of her generation. You’re already sold on Janney, I hope.
Heder’s TV roots come out in the final act, with characters explaining their feelings when they should just be feeling them. Even with the monologuing and life lessons, though, “Tallulah” makes time to humanize the character of Carolyn, who up until then has been the film’s cartoon villain. A quietly rich scene between her and Janney’s Margo is in itself a reward for making us sit through the earlier contrivances. And when Uzo Aduba of “Orange” turns up as a drily capable (and pregnant) child-services officer, Heder’s portrait gallery of motherhood — good, flawed, accidental, just trying to make it through the day — is complete.
Written and directed by Sian Heder. Starring Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard. At West Newton. 111 minutes. Unrated (as R: language, child endangerment).
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.