The Sundance film festival at the beginning of each year is a leading indicator for independent productions which deserve to reach a wider audience. Increasingly, the changing nature of the business means these films are being picked up by new streaming services such as Netflix rather than traditional distributors.

The sheer volume of films is another issue. Only a handful from the hundred or more features at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival are slated for cinema release.

As noted in a previous column, the commercial cinema is now more dependent than ever on remakes and sequels, with diminishing returns for discerning film lovers.

I can’t yet say this is the worst year ever for the lack of quality mainstream films — but it is close and the best may be yet to come as the awards season comes around.

My favourite so far, Love & Friendship, was among Variety magazine’s top 10 “hot titles” at Sundance this year.

So it is encouraging that a second from that list has popped up — but on Netflix. This service, which has some 250,000 local subscribers, has a mix of features and TV series. It is also elbowing out the major Hollywood studios with its movie purchases and its own productions.

One of them is Tallulah, a vehicle for the diminutive Ellen Page, who turned Juno (2007) into an arthouse hit. Tallulah is also feature-length scripting and directing debut for Sian Heder, a writer on Netflix’s TV series Orange Is the New Black.

Named after the flamboyant 1930s Hollywood and Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead, Page plays a vagabond who lives in a van and drifts from city to city.

Her only tie is a boyfriend (Evan Jonigkeit), who freaks her out when he suggests it’s time for them to settle down back in his hometown of New York and perhaps start a family. He leaves anyway, forcing the moneyless Tallulah, who goes by “Lu”, to make her own way to New York, where she barges into the fancy apartment building of her boyfriend’s mother (Allison Janney, who was also in Juno).

Quickly rejected, Lu then enters a swanky hotel to look for food scraps left over from room service. She is mistaken for a maid and is soon babysitting for another mother (Moneyball’s Tammy Blanchard), who is high maintenance, but in need of money.

She returns drunk and collapses into sleep. Her life is obviously unsuited to bringing up a one-year-old, so Lu doesn’t hesitate in taking the girl with her, figuring she could do the job better.

Next day, the mother has reported the daughter missing and Lu, when returning her, makes another rash decision to run for it along with the neglected infant.

After this set up, the story moves into issues of parenting, the role of the police and child services in domestic disputes, and the strength of emotional ties.

The three female leads are excellent and bring out the nuances in their flawed characters. The males have much less to do, but make the most of their brief appearances.

Heder’s work on Orange, the award-winning women’s prison drama series, shows in this equally confined setting, where lives are examined through smart comedy
and rewarding drama.

Rating: N/A. 111 minutes