Living in her van while travelling around America, Tallulah "Lu" and her partner Nico survive by stealing credit cards. When Nico decides it is time to go home to his mother, Tallulah expresses her dismay and argues with Nico about how she will not change her lifestyle. Lu is devastated to discover the next morning that Nico has left without saying goodbye. She finds herself compelled to find him. She drives to New York City, where Nico's mother Margo lives, and finds her at her apartment. After informing Lu that she has not seen Nico in two years, Margo tells Lu to leave.
With nowhere else to go, Tallulah steals from guests at a nearby hotel, only for an eccentric and intoxicated mother, Carolyn, to mistake Lu as housekeeping staff. To Lu's confusion, Carolyn lets her child wander around naked and play with dangerous objects and admits that she is not invested in being a mother. She leaves her toddler, Maddy, in Tallulah's care, while she goes on a date with a man who is not her husband. Tallulah bonds with the young Maddy, bathing her and playing games before a devastated Carolyn arrives back at the hotel, distraught that the man did not want her. After Carolyn drunkenly passes out, Tallulah impulsively takes Maddy back to her van to spend the night. Carolyn panics the next morning when she discovers Maddy is missing and calls the police. When Lu returns to the hotel with Maddy, she flees upon seeing the police and goes to Margo's apartment. After Lu claims that the child is Nico's and that she is Margo's granddaughter, "Maggie," Margo reluctantly agrees to let them stay for one night.
Unknown to Lu, Margo is struggling with her own marital problems after her ex-husband Stephen has left her for a man, Andreas, and is pressing Margo to finalize their divorce. While Lu and Maddy stay with Margo, the three of them bond; Tallulah reveals her fears of forming relationships and Margo admits to having trouble letting go. However, Lu becomes increasingly aware that the authorities are looking for her and Maddy. Meanwhile, a distressed Carolyn is questioned by a social worker who notes that Carolyn has only expressed concern for herself so far instead of her missing child. Frustrated with their questioning, Carolyn leaves the hotel to distract herself and discovers that her husband has cancelled all her credit cards.
During a lunch with Stephen and Andreas, Margo defends Tallulah when Stephen begins to aggressively question Tallulah's relationships with Nico and Maddy. She confronts Stephen about their marriage and the deceit involved. She points out that when all their friends supported Stephen, Margo had been left alone to reconcile the changes in her life and losing the family she loved. On their way back to Margo's apartment, Tallulah and Carolyn notice one another as the latter goes by in a cab. Just before Carolyn catches up to them, Lu narrowly escapes with Maddy and Margo via the subway. When Margo demands to know why Lu ran, an argument ensues and Lu runs off with a feverish Maddy to a pier that Nico had once told Tallulah was his favorite place. Lu imagines diving into the water and swimming away, just as Nico finds her, having finally returned to his mother in New York City.
Taking Maddy to the hospital, Nico devises a plan to allow Lu to escape. At Margo's apartment, Carolyn and the police arrive after a tip from Stephen and Andreas, who recognized Lu from a newspaper article reporting on Maddy's abduction. Carolyn admits to Margo that she did not want to be a mother and feels no maternal instinct, despite loving her daughter; Margo comforts her. At a subway station, Lu calls Margo to apologize for involving her and the police trace the call. Lu tries to make herself get on the subway in order to flee, but instead she returns to Maddy and Nico at the hospital. The police, Carolyn, and Margo arrive at the hospital, where an emotional Tallulah accuses Carolyn of not wanting Maddy. After a tearful Carolyn tells her that she does want her child, Tallulah reluctantly hands Maddy back to her and is arrested by the police.
As the police take Tallulah away, Margo promises to help her however she can. When the detective asks if Lu has a habit of taking toddlers into protective custody, Lu says nothing and smiles ruefully. Some time later, Margo wanders through the park before lying in the grass, recalling her conversation with Tallulah about letting go. She starts floating away happily, but when she sees Tallulah and Nico below her, she reaches out and grabs a tree branch to hold on.Ellen Page as Tallulah
Allison Janney as Margo Mooney
Tammy Blanchard as Carolyn Ford
Evan Jonigkeit as Nico Mooney
David Zayas as Detective Richards
John Benjamin Hickey as Stephen Mooney
Zachary Quinto as Andreas
Uzo Aduba as Detective Louisa Kinnie
Fredric Lehne as Russell Ford
Evangeline and Liliana Ellis as Madison Ford ("Maddy")
Felix Solis as Manuel
Tallulah was written and directed by Sian Heder as a spin-off of her 2006 short film Mother, about a homeless woman who is forced to babysit a toddler with an irresponsible mother at a hotel. By the time that Mother was released in May 2006, Heder had completed the feature-length screenplay for Tallulah, based on her perception of women who "probably know they shouldn't have kids, but then they do it anyway".
The story was inspired by her experience of working as a babysitter for hotel guests in Los Angeles, when she was once required to babysit a toddler whose neglectful mother had come to a Beverly Hills hotel in order to have an extramarital affair. She said that, after the incident, "I left the hotel, got in my car and cried the whole way home, and I thought, I should have taken that kid."
In May 2015, it was announced that Ellen Page and Allison Janney would star in the film's lead roles, after working together previously on Juno (2007) and Touchy Feely (2013). Filming began in June 2015 in New York City, primarily in the borough of Manhattan. The film is being produced by Heather Rae, Russell Levine, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus and Todd Traina, and financed by Route One Entertainment and Ocean Blue Entertainment.
Michael Lloyd and Cutting Edge Group will produce a soundtrack of songs inspired by the film's screenplay. Michael Brook composed the film's score.
Tallulah had its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2016. Prior to the film's premiere at the festival, Netflix acquired distribution rights to the film. The film was released on July 29, 2016.
Tallulah received positive reviews from critics, who praised the two leads' performances. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 84%, based on 49 reviews, with an average rating of 6.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Tallulah's narrative insight, thoughtfully written characters, and talented cast add up to an absorbing family drama that transcends genre tropes and capably overcomes its flirtations with melodrama." On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 63 out of 100, based on 19 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Nigel M. Smith of The Guardian gave the film 4 out of 5 stars, wrote that "Yes, the story has the makings of a Lifetime movie; what grounds it are the terrific performances and Heder's rich direction and screenplay." and praised Ellen Page and Allison Janney's performances. Geoff Berkshire of Variety also praised the two leads and stated "Heder's script likely won't please those who prefer their indie dramas naturalistic and event-free. But the freewheeling storytelling enacted here has an excellent anchor in the grounded work of the ensemble cast."