Grandma, the new film by Paul Weitz, is a wise and often very funny look at a fractured family and how it begins to heal. The reason to see this film, though, is Lily Tomlin’s performance. Ms. Tomlin creates an irascible character who remains faithful to the operating principles of life as she defines them. Unfortunately, the rest of the world seems to have different ideas.
Elle Reid (Ms. Tomlin) has a bitter discussion with her soon-to-be ex, Olivia (Judy Greer) in the opening scenes. Olivia doesn’t understand why the relationship is ending, and neither do we. It’s especially confusing when there’s a shot of Tomlin in the shower, weeping profusely. We do learn Elle’s reasons, just not during set-up.
That same morning, Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) appears on her doorstep. She’s pregnant and needs money for an abortion, scheduled for that evening.
Sage doesn’t feel comfortable discussing her situation with her mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Elle can’t offer much direct help, as she’s cut up her credit cards and used them to decorate a wind chime. Still, she takes up Sage’s cause. The two women set off on an odyssey to find the needed money during the remainder of the morning and afternoon. Their search takes them to Cam (Nat Wolff) the lowlife father of Sage’s child, an old flame of Elle’s (Sam Elliott), and Olivia.
When it comes to money, though, their luck is mostly bad. Sage and Elle are forced to tell Judy about the situation and ask for her help. Initially, Judy is annoyed-they burst into her office and find Judy at her treadmill desk. Later, she has a change of heart and makes a key concession. The final scene between Tomlin and Harden suggests that a family reconciliation could be on the horizon.
If I have a quibble with this film, it’s the plotting. The set-up is very slow to develop, and various elements of the story line are stacked like a house of cards. All the drama with Sage just happens to occur right after Elle ends her relationship with Olivia. It just so happens that Elle has cut up her credit cards right before Sage shows up needing money. The appointment just happens to be that night-apparently, this is the only women’s clinic in California, and they don’t reschedule appointments. I could go on and on, but won’t. Here’s why.
Grandma is one of the first films I’ve seen where multiple generations of women’s reproductive choices are placed side by side without any judgments being rendered. Elle, a gay woman, chose to raise Judy with long-time partner Violet. (Violet died after a long illness, hence Elle’s wariness to commit to Olivia.) Judy used a sperm donor to conceive Sage, who is in the process of terminating a pregnancy. Sage is young, though, so anything is possible for the future.
Although I don’t care for the plotting, I honestly enjoyed the characterization and dialogue in the script. The interplay between Elle and Sage is wonderful. When Elle mentions The Feminine Mystique, Sage thinks it’s a character from X-Men. At another point, Sage mentions that Judy thinks Elle is a philanthropist. Challenged by Elle, Sage realizes that Judy actually said “misanthrope”.
I was fortunate enough to see an advance screening of this film along with a Q & A given by writer/ director Paul Weitz. He mentioned writing this script specifically for Lily Tomlin and also allowing her to have final say on the casting for Julia Garner as Sage. Weitz said the scene where a little girl slugs Tomlin had its basis in real life; this happened to Tomlin’s partner, Jane Wagner, in Las Vegas.
Bottom line: see Grandma for Lily Tomlin’s performance. She’s come a long way, baby.
Theme: Single Pregnancy: Then & Now
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