Director: Paul Weitz
Primary Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliot Laverne Cox
US Release Date: 21 August 2015
Elle (Lily Tomlin) is an unemployed feminist poet and academic who is dating a much younger woman named Olivia (Judy Greer). Olivia indicates that she is uncertain about their relationship, and Elle swiftly lashes out and breaks up with her before she can say much more.
After Olivia leaves, Elle’s aggressive and calloused demeanor falls away. She dons her old commencement gown and looks through old photos. Some of the photos picture an old lover; viewers eventually learn that this woman’s name was Violet, that she was married to Elle for some time, and that she recently passed away.
Shortly, Elle’s teenaged granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), comes knocking on her door. She’s pregnant, has no money, and needs $600 for an abortion scheduled for later that day. She is terrified of going to her mother for money and becomes visibly distraught when she learns that Elle only has $43 to her name (and not a single credit card either).
Determined to find a way to pay for the abortion without going to Sage’s mother for help, Elle and Sage set out in Violet’s old Dodge and do what they can to scrape together the $600 they need. Along the way, Elle encounters numerous figures from her past and present and is forced to rummage through a good deal of her emotional baggage. As Elle confronts certain things about herself and her past, Sage learns more about and grows closer to her grandmother.
Many of the Grandma’s goals may be quite modest, but it reaches them all the same. Written and Directed by Paul Weitz (Admission and Being Flynn), the film is a well-acted and emotionally complex character study. Like Elle herself, this 79-minute film is small, but mighty. At turns hilarious and devastating, Grandma is a film with substance behind it. Despite some small pacing issues and a few underwritten scenes, the film is largely successful, and Tomlin in particular should be praised for her work in it. At the same time, Weitz also deserves a good deal of credit—both for creating such an empathetic and thoughtful slice of life film and for presenting audiences with an affecting and realistic world in which men exist only on the periphery. Not only is Grandma entertaining and poignant, it’s also deeply feminist; not only does this help keep the film from feeling tired, it also sets it apart from many of its peers.
If you’d asked me a week ago whether I had any plans to watch a Paul Weitz film, I would have certainly said no. But when I looked at the list of films playing at my local theater (which included Minions, Maze Runner, Mission Impossible, War Room, Transporter Refueled, Pixels, and Ant-Man), the comparatively unassuming Grandma stuck out to me. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad that it did. I went into the film without expectations, and I came out with tears in my eyes and with a smile on my face.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Grandma is Lily Tomlin’s performance. Elle is a realistic and multifaceted figure. She’s also the sort of woman who is not often the star of a feature film—she’s a grandmother, she’s an out lesbian, and she’s an unapologetic feminist who isn’t mocked for it. She’s also grieving and angry. Furthermore, as much love as Elle shows her granddaughter, and as sympathetic a character as she is, she’s also a bit of an asshole. Male protagonists are regularly allowed to be angry selfish, arrogant, and sarcastic without ceasing to be protagonists; for women, this luxury is a little harder to come by, and Tomlin’s performance embraces it wholeheartedly. There is a hardness to Elle, which Tomlin executes convincingly and with impeccable timing. Elle’s hardness and her fiery personality are responsible for many of Grandma’s more humorous moments, but they are just as responsible for increasing the emotional efficacy of its darker ones. Without Tomlin’s excellent work, Grandma would not be nearly as good as it is.
I also enjoyed seeing Judy Greer and Laverne Cox in the film. Neither of them is on screen for that long, but they both make an impact in their own way. That said, the most memorable supporting performance in the film comes from Sam Elliot. In fact, the sequence is which Elliot appears might just be the most emotional and most poignant in the film. Elliot—who is known for playing cowboys—is remarkably vulnerable in Grandma, and the energy between him and Tomlin is a thing of painful beauty.
Grandma does a fine job balancing comedy and drama. It’s a sweet and salty kind of film, which allows it’s more devastating and emotionally cutting moments to sneak up on unsuspecting viewers. For the most part, the emotions in Weitz’s latest are realistically nuanced, and those who feel them are presented in an empathetic light. Despite Elle’s cutting tongue, Grandma is a tender film, but it’s not overly saccharine or sentimental, and neither its humor nor its tragedy is overplayed.
At the end of the day, Grandma is a film about generations of women; it’s also about family, growing old, growing up, and experiencing loss. And while the film is much more about the women at its heart than it is about abortion, the fact that it deals with the subject in a thoughtful and unsensationalized manner shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, the matter-of-fact way in which Grandma handles abortion is reminiscent of Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014). But the similarities between the two films hardly end there.
The most important thing that Grandma has in common with Obvious Child is the fact that it features women prominently and without oversimplifying them. Representation is one thing. Quality representation is another. Grandma provides the latter—not just for women, but for old women, for queer women, and even for angry women. It’s not that the film puts these groups on some idealistic pedestal (it doesn’t), but it does present them in an intelligent and (more importantly) a multidimensional manner. For anyone hoping for eventual gender equality in Hollywood, Grandma is sure to serve as a warmly welcomed glimmer of hope.
Weitz’s script is successful over all, but it does have its weak spots. For instance, while I appreciate the film’s brevity, Grandma also contains several moments that feel rushed. Grandma is emotionally impactful, but by not allowing certain scenes to breathe a little longer, Weitz keeps the film from realizing its full potential. Additionally, while Tomlin shines in the film, her co-star Garner is overshadowed just a bit. It may be unrealistic to expect a relative newcomer like Garner to deliver a performance as layered and effortless as Tomlin’s, but it’s hard not to compare the two when they share so much screen time.
Grandma is a small and modest film in many ways. In terms of time and space, it’s scope it noticeably limited, and there are moments in the film that feel a little less developed than they should have been. That said—and as good character studies often reveal—appearances don’t tell the whole story, and those who accept Grandma on its own terms will likely be pleasantly surprised by just how much power the film has.
Until Next Time
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