'Grandma': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A sublime match of performer and role

Paul Weitz casts Lily Tomlin as a misanthropic poet on an embattled quest to help her granddaughter in this warm, character-driven comedy-drama.

Lily Tomlin pretty much stole all her scenes as Tina Fey's acerbic radical feminist mother in the otherwise patchy Admission, and it appears that director Paul Weitz thought so, too, as he's hand-tailored her a honey of a role in Grandma. Playing an ill-tempered lesbian on an all-day odyssey to raise the money her granddaughter needs for an abortion, Tomlin is in her glorious element. It doesn't hurt that there are numerous other expertly gauged performances to savor, plus a bundle of heart, in this small-scale but consistently funny and poignant comedy-drama.

While it's very much Tomlin's show, the movie is actually about three generations of women — the forces that shape and scar them, the thorny histories and divergent life choices that distance them, the lessons they absorb or ignore and the ties among them that weaken but seldom break.

And though the termination of a pregnancy is what drives the plot, that sorrowful step is treated with the gravity it warrants in a story that's also about the many imperfect paths of motherhood. Grandma is not as self-congratulatory and in-your-face as the recent Obvious Child about its evolved position on abortion as a regrettable but necessary option in many young women's lives. But there's admirable frankness, intelligence and sensitivity here. Additionally, the film is a thoughtful, funny reflection on the gains and losses of growing old.

A once-celebrated poet now barely scraping by on the academic beat, Elle (Tomlin) is introduced refusing to soften the breakup with Olivia (Judy Greer), her younger girlfriend of the past four months. "You’re a footnote," she tells Olivia — it's dismissive but also sadly true, given Elle's still-fresh grief over her 38-year partner Violet's death a year and a half earlier.

While Elle is sitting around getting maudlin about the past, her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), a high school senior, rolls up to her Los Feliz house and drops the bomb that she's pregnant. Unwilling to tell her bossy mother, whose relationship with Elle is strained to say the least, Sage has scheduled an abortion for that afternoon and needs $600 to pay for it.

The film makes a sweet joke about lesbians and their wind chimes by having Elle's made out of the pieces of her cut-up credit cards. Her strapped financial state means she has to call in favors to raise the cash, and her sour nature means there are few friends to whom she can turn. Even when bridges haven't been burned, like with transgender tattooist Deathy (Laverne Cox), the latter's economic pinch limits how much she can help out.

There are some hilarious early opportunities for Elle to vent her foul-mouthed irascibility and zero tolerance for "assholes," notably with an uptight barista (John Cho) in a coffee shop that was formerly a free women's health center, and at a cafe where she tries to sell some first editions to the flinty owner (the late Elizabeth Pena in one of her final roles). Sage stands by dumbstruck while Grandma hurls invective, and though the girl is no dummy, she does think The Feminine Mystique is an X-Men character, amusingly underlining the canyon-wide generation gap.

An attempt to pressure the baby's deadbeat father, Cam (Nat Wolff), yields minimal gains, but it does serve for Elle to sort him out with an ice hockey stick and score a bag of weed that comes in handy later.

Where the film really kicks in and gains emotional weight, however, is in a beautiful scene with Karl (Sam Elliott, just perfection), a mellow old romantic with four ex-wives and a tribe of grandchildren, who hasn't seen Elle in 30 years. He agrees to lend her the money, but their painful unresolved history gets in the way before the deal is done.

As their trail of frustration continues against a ticking clock, it becomes clear that taking the dilemma to Sage's mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), is their best option. A power lawyer with a trembling assistant (Mo Aboul-Zelof), Judy is a fire-breathing chip off the old block, and the marvelous Harden nails her every brilliant barb, as well as the whole frazzled history with her mother. But as Sage's appointment draws nearer, with other setbacks, second thoughts and fears along the way, the three women reach a tentative mutual understanding.

Not every scene benefits from flawless timing, especially early on, and Weitz arguably pushes the sentiment buttons by indicating more often than is necessary the specter of the much-mourned Violet hanging in the air. The sappy string score could also have been improved upon. But this is a refreshingly modest, no-frills movie that is character-driven in the most rewarding possible sense, with an ample share of priceless dialogue played for truth, not for jokes. The performances are lovely, including that of up-and-comer Garner, who has many touching moments as Sage alternates between recoiling from and reaching for her mother and grandmother.

However, everything in the movie revolves around the irreplaceable Tomlin, and rightly so. Her entire history as an actor, a comedian, a feminist and a pioneering voice for LGBT rights comes into play in this formfitting role. Anybody who loves her — and if you don't, why are you even reading? — won't want to miss this.

Production companies: 1821 Media, Depth of Field

Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff, John Cho, Sam Elliott, Elizabeth Pena, Sarah Burns, Colleen Camp, Lauren Tom, Judy Geeson, Frank Collison, Mo Aboul-Zelof

Director-screenwriter: Paul Weitz

Producers: Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz, Paris Kasidokostas-Latsis, Terry Dougas

Executive producers: Stephanie Meurer, Dan Balgoyen, Danielle Renfrew Behrens

Director of photography: Tobias Datum

Production designers: Cindy Chao, Michele Yu

Costume designer: Molly Grundman-Gerbosi

Music: Joel P. West

Editor: Jonathan Corn

Casting: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein, Deborah Maxwell Dion

Sales: WME

No rating, 82 minutes