If my time on the internet and also this planet has taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing we as a society love to question more than motherhood. I may not be a mother, but I’m 28 years old and a cis woman, so according to Facebook’s advertising formula and the bulk of my relatives, I could pop one out at any given moment. This means I must be subjected to lots of Opinions and Ideas about how best to manage this when I do. From cloth diapers to home births to attachment parenting, it seems as though everyone’s an expert on the best way to bring your kid into the world and how to keep it alive. But nothing raises our collective hackles more than the idea of maternity itself. That is; the desire, the drive, to procreate – but more broadly, the all-encompassing selfless love that comes as if by magic after the fact. Nobody is more universally hated than a mother who hasn’t loved her child well enough.
This idea of motherhood as utterly instinctive is, most people understand, if not a myth, at the very least flawed. If the idea that mothers often have no idea what the fuck they’re doing is still, in 2016, somewhat revolutionary in pop culture, at least it’s not unheard of: we know that mothers give up their babies (Juno) or walk away from them later (The Hours), have abortions (Girls, Obvious Child) struggle with post-partum depression (Scrubs), have conflicting feelings about what self-actualisation means as a mother (Parenthood), haven’t always read all the parenting books (Gilmore Girls). But what happens if, coinciding with the absence of any innate maternal desire, an elective one emerges?
The film Tallulah, which came out on Netflix earlier this year, grapples with this question.
The titular Tallulah, played by Ellen Page, is rash, rough, and unknowable. In an interview with Variety, writer and director Sian Heder describes the character as ‘feral’. Her own mother abandoned her when she was young; she has no learned maternity, and reacts to the suggestion of domesticity – presented by her boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) with confusion and fear. Abandoned by Nico and with no place to go, Tallulah travels to New York City hoping to find him. While stealing discarded food off room service trays at an upscale hotel, Tallulah is mistaken for a room attendant and ushered into a room. There, she is confronted by an abrasive hotel guest, Carolyn, (Tammy Blanchard) who wants to pay her to take care of her toddler for the night. Quickly Tallulah realises – with her limited understanding of the needs of babies – that the toddler is neglected and in danger. At one point, before Carolyn leaves for the evening, the toddler makes its way onto the open balcony; when Tallulah protests, the mother is dismissive.
By being forced into the role of witness, Tallulah becomes complicit – and it’s obvious that she isn’t interested in complicity. A mental line is crossed for Tallulah, and for the audience: if even Tallulah knows better than this, it must be bad.
When the mother finally returns from her night out and promptly passes out on the bed with the baby left crying, confused and unsupervised, the course of action for Tallulah becomes obvious: she takes the baby and runs.
In his review in The Atlantic, David Sims calls it ‘vigilante justice’, but this is a massive simplification at best. In the heat of the moment, Tallulah isn’t judgmental or even deliberate – she’s desperate. She isn’t an activist; she is, as Heder puts it, feral – but feral in the most honest way. She’s acting as we expect a mother to in the wild: Tarzan’s ape mother. But Tarzan’s mother didn’t have access to emergency numbers or child protection service programs. All Tallulah has to do is pick up a phone, and walk away without culpability. But she doesn’t. The baby is hers now.
The most obvious dissection of Tallulah is one which examines the idea of shame, the idea of the ‘good mother’ as it relates to the mother whose child is stolen – what does it mean to be maternal or not maternal, a good mother or a bad one? These philosophical questions are interesting, and they’re the ones that continue to crop up in interviews and reviews. But what about the chosen mother? The question of who is fit to mother a child is central to Tallulah, sure – but we’re meant to consider this question in relation to the child’s biological mother, and her alone, without worrying too much about Tallulah herself.
But Tallulah’s adopted motherhood is infinitely more interesting. After all, there’s nothing particularly new or exciting about the idea of the failing biological mother, judged by society and, more harshly, by herself. You could say that at this point it’s almost a trope. Tallulah, on the other hand, is the failing adoptive mother. She’s signed up for this gig: so what does it mean that she doesn’t know what size diaper to put the kid in? Contrast this with the fact that at the beginning of the movie, Tallulah realises that the mother thinks that the one-year-old baby should be fully potty trained. Neither of them have a damned clue what they’re doing: the difference is that Tallulah knows that she needs to learn.
At its core, Tallulah offers up a hypothesis – that a child needs maternal love before it needs stability, financial security or a parent who knows how to pack a diaper bag– and leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not this is true.
Why does Tallulah, unattached, unmothered and largely unloved, with no means to care for herself let alone a baby, feel this maternal impulse when the baby’s own mother doesn’t or can’t? Tallulah feels as though this baby belongs to her, and it is this belonging that is the most important factor in whether the child will be better off with her or someone else. It’s an interesting role to watch Ellen Page navigate, considering that in one of her best-known films, Juno, the audience has watched her come to the understanding that she has no means or ability to raise a baby, and decide that it is in the baby’s best interests to be placed with someone who knows what they’re doing.
In last year’s Room, which centred around Joy, a kidnapped woman raising her child in captivity, this question also presented itself:
Interviewer: When he was born, did it ever occur to you to ask your captor to take Jack away?
Interviewer: Well, to take him to a hospital, say, leave him there, where he could be found?
Joy: Why would I do that?
Interviewer: So Jack could be free. Now, this is the ultimate sacrifice, and I understand that. But did you think about him having a normal childhood?
Joy: But he had me.
The difference of course is that Joy is the biological mother. Her maternal instincts are telling her that the best thing for her child is to be with her, as are Tallulah’s – but Tallulah’s are presented as an artifice, and as such, the audience doesn’t know if they’re allowed to root for her or not. If it’s Team Tallulah or Team Carolyn, Team Carolyn has a distinct home team advantage. If motherhood is a game, the biological mother is the trump card personified.
‘I knew that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me’
This idea of artificial ideas of maternity seems to be almost having a moment in pop culture. We see this idea of belonging play out in Miranda July’s 2015 novel, The First Bad Man. The protagonist, Cheryl (as unloved and unfit as Tallulah, albeit in wildly different ways) believes that she shares a certain indescribable ownership of or mutual connection with certain babies; they appear again and again in her life in different forms. She calls these babies Kubelko Bondy babies:
Something hit my car and I jumped. It was the door of the car next to mine; a woman was maneuvering her baby into its car seat. I held my throat and leaned forward to get a look, but there was no way to tell if it was one of the babies I think of as mine. Not mine biologically, just … familiar. I call those ones Kubelko Bondy. It only takes a second to check; half the time I don’t even know I’m doing it until I’m already done.
Cheryl goes on to explain the origins of the name Kubelko Bondy: she calls the babies this because her first encounter with this experience of belonging was with a baby whose name she thought was Kubelko Bondy. As she describes it:
I kept my arms around him and he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me.
This experience takes place when Cheryl is still a child. Not only is she unqualified to parent Kubelko Bondy because of her age, she can’t even remember what the child’s real name was – but this feeling of belonging pervades every obstacle. Kubelko Bondy is her child, and he belongs with her. Later in the novel, Cheryl’s girlfriend Clee gives birth to a baby, and Cheryl becomes a mother ‘for real’. However, this doesn’t negate the feeling of belonging to all of her Kubelko Bondy babies. From a narrative perspective, it’s almost as though Cheryl has to become a mother of her ‘own’ baby in order to justify the thought that she is the rightful parent to the Kubelko Bondy babies. Is it that we’re just too afraid of the chosen mother – the mother who looks at a baby she’s never met before and thinks: mine?
This narrative justification plays out in Tallulah as well. We see Carolyn, the mother who had such a lack of maternal instinct that she didn’t care if her baby fell off a balcony, have her come-to-Jesus moment when Tallulah takes the baby, deciding she does actually want to be a mother after all. We’re quickly positioned to feel great sympathy for her: what kind of monster would take someone else’s child? Of course she is filled with a blinding, wild and instinctive desperation to get her child back: she’s her mother. In an interview with the Mary Sue, Heder says, ‘One of the defining moments in that subway chase scene was that she has that giant pink suitcase, and as we were blocking the scene on the street in New York the script supervisor, who’s in charge of continuity, said, “Her suitcase is in the trunk, she needs to get it out before she crosses the street”, and it was one of those moments were I thought, “No, she’s leaving her suitcase because she is running after her child”.’
The end of Tallulah makes the takeaway crystal clear: the baby might not be better off with Carolyn, the biological mother – we don’t know – but at any rate, she doesn’t belong with Tallulah. Tallulah’s motherhood is temporal, her innate feelings of maternity misdirected. The baby might be Carolyn’s, might be the foster system’s and then an adopted mother’s, but it is not hers. Heder has said in multiple interviews that before she became a parent herself the character of Carolyn was written very differently, and the ending of the film has Tallulah getting away with it. I’ll admit that secretly, that’s an ending I’d like to see.
We accept that chemistry is bigger than reason, that it can tell us who we’re meant to have children with (or at the very least who we should fuck). We accept that motherhood is more than just biology: after all, aren’t adoptive parents just as qualified and loving as biological ones? (Again, I call to mind Juno.) So is it possible, after all, that when Tallulah looks at a baby in a hotel room and thinks mine, that she’s right? Not right as in she’s better qualified to care for or to love the child, not right as in justified in taking it, but right as in this baby somehow does belong to Tallulah, intrinsically, beyond all rhyme or reason – that the Kubelko Bondy babies belong with Cheryl, and that such a thing is possible? This doesn’t seem to be the question that we’re supposed to ask when we watch Tallulah, but it’s the question I’m asking, for no other reason than it seems to be the most interesting one.
Tallulah is available now on Netflix.