Editor’s Note: Grandma opened in limited theatrical release August 21, 2015.
Interesting thing about Grandma is that it’s a fantasy about real people with dire real world issues. On its face, the cute and convenient set-up of this film simply wouldn’t exist outside of…well, a cute and convenient movie. And yet there is undeniable authenticity to these characters, to their plights, to their needs. It’s an interesting clash of earthbound characters in an explicitly elevated formal environment…and one that is ultimately just as wonderful as it’s intended to be.
Quirky character-driven comedy, meet serious real-life trauma. It’s like the cinematic version of peanut butter and jelly.
Basically, Grandma is a sort of road movie, albeit one that doesn’t cover much physical ground. It’s also a clock movie, though the deadline is specious at best. The characters hop from one quirky setting to the next, interacting with all manner of goofy characters within a roughly 8-hour period all in order to…procure enough money to pay for an abortion that is scheduled for 5:00pm that day. So you get the picture, right? Quirky character-driven comedy, meet serious real-life trauma. It’s like the cinematic version of peanut butter and jelly.
Lily Tomlin plays the titular character, in a role that has been the subject of Oscar buzz since its Sundance premiere. And for good reason –- it’s a fabulous performance, the kind of fierce, spitfire showcase of quick wit and jaded perspective that makes everything else on the screen seem like background noise. She is Elle Reid, a retired English professor who was once a lauded scholar and poet. But in her waning years, she is broke, unproductive, and entrenched in unhappiness. When we first meet Elle, she is in the process of splitting with her much-younger girlfriend (played in an extended cameo by Judy Greer), a split that hurts Elle far deeper than she lets on. It’s no sooner than the girlfriend walks out the door that young Sage (Julia Garner) comes knocking. She’s Elle’s granddaughter, spunky but naïve, and she comes with a particularly dire predicament. She’s pregnant, has scheduled an appointment to terminate said pregnancy, but doesn’t have the money (I kept waiting for someone to utter the phrase, “I’m here to procure a hasty abortion,” but Diablo Cody beat this movie to the punch). She also has seemingly nowhere else to turn, since the baby’s father is a deadbeat punk, and Sage’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is stingy and judgmental.
Lily Tomlin plays the titular character, in a role that has been the subject of Oscar buzz since its Sundance premiere.
A premise such as this is pure cinema, for nowhere in the real world would these characters be saddled with this kind of precise comic scenario. In the real world, the solution would be either much simpler or much more tragic. For these particular characters, if everyone just sat down together and had a conversation, they would be saved the trouble of hopping in Elle’s broken-down car and driving across the city (and in a some cases, even further than that) to meet a rogue’s gallery of potential benefactors. But, ya know, then there would be no movie. And I’m glad this movie exists, fantastical premise and all, for this quirky world we glimpse is absolutely charming. It also allows actors we like –- not merely Tomlin, Garner, and Harden, but also Greer as the spurned lover, Laverne Cox as Elle’s old friend, Nat Wolff as Sage’s punk boyfriend, and Sam Elliott as Elle’s still-smitten former beau — to create characters that are very specific and uniquely empathetic. That’s a hard task when most of them are only given one significant scene in this ultra-lean 79-minute movie, but neither the actors nor writer/director Paul Weitz’s screenplay waste a single moment. Each sequence serves to reveal something new about Elle’s past, which of course is the film’s ultimate purpose. This isn’t a movie about finding money to fund an abortion, it’s a movie about cutting to the core of Elle’s world-weary cynicism, an acute character study wrapped up in an idiosyncratic bow.
We’ve seen this type of thematic material many times before, this romanticized coming-of-age story for adults who might have otherwise already been expected to come of age. Weitz has actually been responsible for a handful of them, from About a Boy to In Good Company to Being Flynn. What makes Grandma fresh and unique among them is that it centers on women, almost universally, from top to bottom. So instead of Jack Nicholson playing a variation on the same character for the twentieth time, Tomlin is able to break out in a way she hasn’t been permitted to break out in years, seizing the role and unearthing every last nuance. That’s why the choice of abortion – even as a tertiary narrative device, such as it is – is vital to the emotional thrust of the narrative. Women’s choices, women’s voices, women’s desperation, women’s agency, women’s lives. Here is a story that values them, and – in ways both frivolous and substantial, both elevated and grounded – it’s absolutely disarming.
What makes Grandma fresh and unique among them is that it centers on women, almost universally, from top to bottom. Women’s choices, women’s voices, women’s desperation, women’s agency, women’s lives. Here is a story that values them, and – in ways both frivolous and substantial, both elevated and grounded – it’s absolutely disarming.