Like a particle accelerator, slinging particles around a circular trajectory at high speeds to smash them together which produces high traces of energy and maybe even other particles, Paul Weitz’s film “Grandma” collides characters at high emotional intensity to produce a tantamount of dramatic energy. These character collisions, like the Large Hadron Collider, reveal a story beyond the collisions. Indeed, the film is a series of encounters in which high voltage of feelings, desires, goals, and fears all run into each other at a crossroads. We witness such collisions over the shoulder of Elle Reid, played by Lily Tomlin, whose performance is so convincing and incredible that the film is instantaneously and continuously infectious. Elle has just dumped her girlfriend, Olivia, and is in a miserable nostalgic state when she is interrupted by the random arrival of her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner). An unplanned pregnancy has forced Sage to ask Elle for help, not even thinking about going to her mother. It seems both Elle and Sage are quite distant from the one person that links their lineage. Though the story may contain too quick of pacing, the film shines because the characters are so likable, so real, and a vast quarry of memories and past narratives flood into the simplicity of the plot.
There really is not much to say about the structure. And it is interesting to think about the simplicity in such a way. There is nothing to necessitate an overabundance of plot threads, conflicts, and acts. Each character collision that inhabits each and every scene creates its own beginning and end, rise and fall, ebb and flow. The gravitational shifts within the scene mark the dynamics between one character and another or sometimes more than two. One particular scene involves Elle unexpectedly meeting her recently dumped girlfriend at a coffee shop. Pacing is reminiscent of classic Hollywood tradition with quick response time and each line of dialogue only adds to the attitude of the scene. Tension builds not just between them, but between Elle and her granddaughter or Elle and the store manager. Each relationship delivers another form of tension which accelerates into a feisty and fun exchange of great performances. Editing is spot-on to help organize such social chaos.
Nuance and complexity develops as more of the collisions occur and the introverted aggression Elle surrounds herself with is called into question. Lily Tomlin sports a weathered face, showing a character who has learned too much over her long life. Her eyes are the clear avenue to showcasing a sad jadedness standing in correlation to her insulting comedy towards the world around her. It is an extended scene at the end of the second act involving Sam Elliot in the most un-Sam Elliot role I have ever seen. Though, it goes without question, his performance illuminates a caring story in of itself, despite limited screen time. Moreover, Elle trajectory takes a change in far more revealing and satisfying manner.
“Grandma” also says a lot about its most controversial topic: abortion. Yet, it is not done so with hostility and a fiery passion. No, abortion is just, well, an option. A Similar view is shown in the recent film, “Obvious Child.” The insistence that such an operation actually isn’t the focus (save for a couple of scenes) assembles a perception that Sage is allowed a choice, and the choice is all that matters. We realize that abortion is not the theme nor is it where the film hinges its morality on but, rather, it is almost a vehicle for understanding two women in an unexpected conflict. “Grandma” is a sincere film that is filled with both energetic fun and gentle humanity. Lily Tomlin is also quite masterful.