“Tallulah” is a story born from real-world experiences that is nevertheless tinged with magical realism. It’s also a film in which the themes on-screen were in no small way mirrored by the off-screen saga of creating it.
Premiering at Sundance as part of the U.S. Dramatic competition, the film is the feature debut for writer-director Sian Heder. The story is an expansion of her 2006 short film “Mother,” and Heder has in the intervening years pursued a burgeoning career in television, most notably as a writer and producer on “Orange Is the New Black.”
The film has three powerful and nuanced performances at its core, weaving a delicate blend of comedy and drama, weight and whimsy. Ellen Page plays the title character, a vagabond scamp who rambles into New York City. She gets work as a temp nanny and after an encounter with wasted trophy wife Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), Tallulah impulsively takes her baby.
Unsure of what to do next, she goes to her erstwhile boyfriend’s mother, Margo (Allison Janney), whom she has never met, and passes the baby off as her own. These most unusual of circumstances push all three women toward unexpected junctures.
Though Heder first wrote the script before she herself was a mother — “I wrote the movie from a place of judgment,” she said — by the time the movie was in production last summer she had a small child and was pregnant with another. She saw how her perspective on her own story had changed in particular toward the story’s perceived bad mother.
“Continuing to work on the script I suddenly realized that Carolyn wasn’t the villain and I couldn’t judge her in the same way that I had,” Heder said. “The character you start off hating you find empathy for.”
Though a first-time feature filmmaker making a movie about mothers while herself pregnant and caring for a young child is an obvious hook, Heder is wary of the film being pigeonholed in any way.
“You don’t want the story to be the story of the mommy filmmaker,” Heder said ahead of the festival in Los Angeles. “I think if the subject matter of the movie hadn’t been so aligned with what happened, I would feel like I didn’t want that to be a part of any of this, like who cares if I was pregnant, who cares if I had a toddler, but the whole story is about that.
“And there is so much pressure on women to be nailing it all of the time. The irony is my experience of having to leave my child to make the movie made me feel like I was failing in some way like the mothers in the movie are failing,” she added.
For years Heder tried to get “Tallulah” off the ground. At one point the film was about to go into production when she found out she was pregnant with her first child and put making the movie on hold. So when financing came around again and she again found herself pregnant, Heder decided to move forward with both projects — the movie and the baby.
“She called me and said I have to tell you something,” recalled producer Heather Rae, “and I said ‘You’re pregnant, ha-ha.’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”
Producer Russell Levine of the company Route One Entertainment, who helped finance the picture, was unfazed by the unexpected news.
“My first thought was ‘that’s fantastic.’ Then it was ‘How pregnant is she and how much insurance do we have to get?’” Levine said recently. “We’re very fond of working with women filmmakers, and that’s kind of part of the package.”
Much of the creative team behind the scenes, including cinematographer Paula Huidobro, who also shot the “Mother” short, consisted of women.
“I didn’t set out to have all women,” Heder said. “It was on our first scout I looked around and realized it was seven women in the van — assistant director, gaffer, production designer, costume designer, DP, producer. I actually had a little moment of, ‘I didn’t mean to do that. It just kind of worked out.’”
“I think Sian and I both agree that it’s whoever is the best man for the job,” added Rae, whose previous credits include producing 2008 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner “Frozen River,” which would go on to be nominated for two Oscars. “And that’s how we went about hiring.”
Even before the festival, “Tallulah” is already something of a success story: Streaming video rights were sold to Netflix. Theatrical rights are available, but the film’s financial burden has already been lifted.
The festival store on Main Street in Park City, Utah, during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Dave Mangels / Getty Images)
Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute, speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.”(Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)
Director Nate Parker, left, actors Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller and Chike Okonkwo discuss “The Birth of a Nation” at the Deadline.com panel.(Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for Samsung)
Producer Laura Rister, left, actor Boyd Holbrook, writer-director Jason Lew, actors the Intervention Happy Hour at the Samsung Studio.(Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for Samsung)
Music composer Jay Wadley, left, and general manager of St. Regis Deer Valley Edward Shapard attend Rand Luxury Hosts cocktail reception.(Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Rand Luxury)
Actress Chloe Sevigny, left, and Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive attend Glamour’s Women Rewriting Hollywood Lunch.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images for Glamour)
Director Jacqueline Lyanga attends Glamour’s Women Rewriting Hollywood Lunch.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images for Glamour)
Director of Sundance John Cooper, left, director Anne Fontaine and producer Eric Altmayer attend the “Agnus Dei” premiere.(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Actress Kristen Stewart, left, and director and writer Kelly Reichardt at the premiere of “Certain Women.”(Danny Moloshok / Invision)
“Lovesong” cast members Brooklyn Decker, from left, Jena Malone and Riley Keough pose alongside director So Yong Kim and her daughter Sky Ok Gray at the premiere of the film.(Chris Pizzello / Invision )
Actresses Jenny Slate, left, and Zoe Kazan pose at the premiere of “Joshy.”(Arthur Mola / Invision )
Director Jeff Baena and actress Aubrey Plaza at the premiere of “Joshy.”(Arthur Mola / Invision )
Kevin Smith, left, director of “Yoga Hosers,” and cast member Jason Mewes.(Chris Pizzello / Invision )
Actors Ralph Garman, from left, Jason Mewes, Austin Butler and Justin Long at the “Yoga Hosers” cast party.(Evan Agostini / Invision )
Director Kevin Smith with his daughter, actress Harley Quinn Smith, at the “Yoga Hosers” cast party.(Evan Agostini / Invision )
Recording artist Questlove, left, and director Spike Lee at the “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall” premiere.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Bryce Dallas Howard, director of the short film “Solemates,” poses before a screening of the film.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Actor John Krasinski walks along Park City’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Actor Thomas Middleditch walks along Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Actress Lorraine Toussaint on Park City’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Anderson Cooper on Park City’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Actor Matt Damon takes part in a panel discussion on the global water crisis during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Sting performs at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Arthur Mola / Invision/Associated Press)
Actresses Kate Beckinsale, left, and Chloe Sevigny at the premiere of “Love & Friendship.”(Danny Moloshok / Invision/Associated Press)
Actor Viggo Mortensen at the premiere of “Captain Fantastic.”(Danny Moloshok / Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)
Singer John Legend, executive producer of “Southside With You,” poses at the premiere of the film.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
“Southside With You” writer and director Richard Tanne, left, with cast members Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Matthew Gray Gubler poses through a cardboard frame at the “Trash Fire” premiere.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Actress Maude Apatow, right, and her father, Judd Apatow, at the premiere of “Other People” at the Sundance Film Festival.(Danny Moloshok / Invision/Associated Press)
Casey Affleck, left, and Jon Hamm attend An Artist at the Table, a cocktail and dinner program benefit, in Kamas, Utah.(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Singer-songwriter Nick Jonas attends An Artist at the Table in Kamas, Utah.(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, left, musican Sting, artist Cai Guo-Qiang and actor Fisher Stevens attend the “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Producer Sam Bisbee, left, actress Maude Apatow, actor J.J. Totah, actress Madisen Beaty, actor Jesse Plemons, actress Molly Shannon, director Chris Kelly, actor Bradley Whitford, actor John Early, producer Naomi Scott and actor Adam Scott attend the “Other People” premiere.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Snowy conditions on Park City’s Main Street.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Bill Hill, Sundance projection and inspection manager, wipes down film reels at the festival’s print traffic room.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Mayhew shovels snow off the marquee of the Egyptian Theater on Old Main Street in Park City, Utah.(George Frey / European Pressphoto Agency)
Preparations are underway for the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, including on Old Main Street.(George Frey / European Pressphoto Agency)
Adrianne Jorge, left, prepares films in digital formats as Bill Hill, right, Sundance projection and inspection manager, works on a film reel at the print traffic room for the Sundance Film Festival.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Moderator Sean Means; Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute; executive director Keri Putnam; and director of Sundance Film Festival John Cooper(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, and Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, take part in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival opening day press conference.(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)
Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means, festival director John Cooper, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam and actor and festival founder Robert Redford attend a press conference to open the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(George Frey / EPA)
An Oscar Mayer Wienermobile passes a sign welcoming visitors during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Danny Moloshok / Invision / Associated Press)
“We’re going to be a profitable film,” said Levine of the Netflix sale. “You’d like to have a film as many people can see as possible in the best circumstances. And we think that’s with a healthy theatrical run.”
Edgy streaming series such as “Orange Is the New Black” are all the rage, so it’s an interesting moment for Heder to turn to cinema to tell her story. In a sense Heder is moving in the opposite direction against the tide of cultural momentum.
“I think I love the idea of telling a complete story that has a complete beginning, middle and end, that’s compact and finite,” she explained. “Like a great play, you sit and you have a singular experience. And it doesn’t go on and on. Obviously I’m in TV world and what creates a story engine that can go on for years and years is very different from what creates an involving story for two hours.”
Though it took many years and the birth of two children to see it through, Heder’s exploration of motherhood and beyond in “Tallulah” has brought deep creative satisfaction.
“I was walking through the East Village and there was a line of trucks,” she said, recalling a moment during the film’s production, “and I’m thinking, I came up with this thing, I sat down and had an idea and now all these people are here making exactly what I wrote down in exactly the way I wanted to make it. There’s something so fulfilling about that.”