I’ve always enjoyed watching Lily Tomlin. Here, in what she has hinted may be her final big screen role, she plays the titular grandma Elle, and if it is the last we see of her it’s both a fitting swansong and one of the best roles she has had since the early 1990s. (It was, in fact, written specifically for her.) An episodic, touching and often very funny character piece with an edge, Paul Weitz’s Grandma takes place during the course of one day and the plot is mainly concerned with cranky poet Elle’s attempts to help raise the money for her granddaughter’s abortion. The pregnant teenager in question is Sage, played by Julia Garner, and neither of these two women feel that they can ask the one person who connects them for the cash: Sage’s mother / Elle’s daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who seems to have rebelled against a hippie upbringing. Instead grandma and granddaughter set out trying to scratch a few dollars here and a few dollars there, hampered by the fact that Sage has had her credit card confiscated and Elle has cut hers up to use the pieces in homemade wind chimes. Some of their encounters across the day are funny, some of them descend unnecessarily into vitriolic but enjoyably-watchable shouting matches, and some of them are eminently touching: the standout is probably Elle’s scene with ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott), which is all of these things.
Elliott appears for less than ten minutes and is one of the few male characters in this story. Grandma is primarily about relationships that exist between women, both in terms of the different generations of family members and the ones who have made up the majority of Elle’s lovelife. Her partner for 38 years, Violet, has passed away, but she is discussed so often she feels like an integral part of the story; and Elle breaks up with current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) in the film’s opening scene, cruelly referring to her a ‘footnote’, but there is a sense that their relationship has ended too soon and their paths will cross again before the day is done.
Elle’s cruelty appears repeatedly and her short fuse makes her difficult to warm to (though you should do, fairly quickly); she has a sharp tongue, and occasionally you feel for those on the receiving end of its lashings, particularly an over-sensitive coffee shop barista and an old friend running an LGBT-friendly cafe restaurant (played by Elizabeth Peña, who sadly passed away shortly after making this film). Yet she is clearly loyal to and protective of those she loves, and those who know her well are so used to her meltdowns they just seem to let them blow over. It’s sharply scripted by Weitz, and Tomlin clearly relishes delivering her portion of the dialogue, spitting out sarcastic lines and threats with gleeful abandon. Grandma may be quite light, coming in at just 79 minutes, but during that time it fizzes and crackles with wit and left-wing sentiment, whether via Elle’s championing of writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer or her reaction to a mother/daughter team of anti-abortion protestors, which ends brutally in a moment of slapstick. Tomlin will probably be best remembered for her various films with Robert Altman, particularly Nashville, for which she won an Academy Award, but if this is the last we see of her thankfully it’s more than a mere footnote.
Directed by: Paul Weitz.
Written by: Paul Weitz.
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott.
Cinematography: Tobias Datum.
Editing: Jonathon Corn.
Music: Joel P. West.
Running Time: 79 minutes.