‘Grandma’ is one of those indie gems that can pass though a crowded box office in the blink of an eye. That’s a shame since this is a remarkable little film. When you think about the word grandma in your mind, images of a docile and sweet woman baking cookies emerges. The reason why this story breaks the mold of those tired stereotypes is Lily Tomlin. The story not only showcases her comedy skills but it was written and directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) specifically for her to portray a fictional character that reflects facets of her real life. ‘Grandma’ could have easily fallen into a clichéd and annoying intergenerational comedy but it is much deeper through a brilliant performance by Tomlin. It is both funny as well as poignant and it is that fine balancing act that makes ‘Grandma’ worth your time.
Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a grandmother but as we get to know her there is a lot more to this complicated person. She was a famous poet back in the 1970s and led a bohemian lifestyle making a living through teaching and seminars on college campuses. She is a lesbian that is still grieving over the loss of her partner Violet of 38 years. “You were a footnote,” she tells her current girlfriend, Olivia (wonderfully played by Judy Greer) in the first scene during their painful breakup. It is obvious Elle doesn’t really mean the nasty things she says to Olivia but they come out anyway in a raw and unfiltered manner. There is a huge age gap between the two women that probably fueled Elle’s dissatisfaction. It’s also apparent that Elle is not done grieving over Violet.
Unexpectedly, there’s a knock on her door. It’s her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) needing $630 for an abortion. Time is of the essence since the procedure is scheduled for 5:45 that afternoon. The problem is that Elle is broke after paying off her house and cutting up her credit cards. She explains how she is trying to simplify her life. Since Sage doesn’t want to involve her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Elle decides to help her by taking a road trip in Violet’s old vintage car to somehow find the money. The story changes gears and becomes a road trip movie. Not only is it a chance for her to bond with her granddaughter but it’s also an opportunity for Elle to make it a cathartic journey as she meets up with estranged friends and deals with her anxiety of mortality. It builds up to a very poignant character study of a woman who feels the best part of her life is already over.
There are some funny moments as Elle vents her anger toward the contemptible people that get in her way. They pay a visit to Sage’s boyfriend (Nat Wolff) who discovers Elle is not a helpless grandmother but one that can fire back insults and wield a mean hockey stick to the loser’s privates. Whether she is confronting an uptight barista (John Cho) or a strong-willed café owner (the late Elizabeth Pena), Elle is unapologetic when her anger gets the best of her. Elle is proud of her feminism as she talks about some of her idols like Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir. She is horrified that her granddaughter is not aware of these influential women. “You don’t know The Feminine Mystique?” utters Elle. Sage replies, “Mystique is a character in X-Men.” It perfectly illustrates the generational gap between them. Elle is appalled that her first edition novels are not more valuable as a way to raise funds.
And then the film takes another unexpected and enriching turn. They pay a visit to Elle’s ex-husband (Sam Elliott) who is still reeling from their breakup. The encounter reveals that Elle did like men at one time in her life. Their reunion also lends more insight into Elle’s persona. Essentially it shows a woman that has lived a fully realized life. She’s not just a lesbian, she’s a poet. She’s not just a senior, she is a feminist that finally comes to terms with getting old and still has something to offer the world. At one point she says “I like being old. Young people are stupid.” Here’s a woman that has achieved a good deal and experienced the highs and lows of a fully lived life. She comes to terms with her mortality. “That’s the way it goes,” Elle finally reflects on getting old. The film never takes a stance on lesbianism or abortion, they are simply choices women must make on their own and live with them. Tomlin gives a tour de force performance that pays homage to an eclectic career. Up-and-coming actress Julia Garner skillfully delivers the naiveté and self-centered attitude of adolescence as she learns some hard life lessons in the story.
‘Grandma’ is a little film that packs a big message about grieving, mortality and leading a fulfilling life. Tomlin’s performance showcases her talent as a funny and serious actress. She confirms that age is just a number as she navigates through the highs and lows of her life. ‘Grandma’ is now playing at The Flicks and a theater near you. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/zXk1St0MDN8.