A teenager spends the day with her free-spirited grandma, trying to collect enough money for her abortion. This certainly sounds like the premise of a sitcom pilot that would be canceled after a few episodes.
And yet, Paul Weitz’s “Grandma” is one of the loveliest movies to come out this year. The movie defies its could-be grating premise and creates a beautiful and wickedly funny story about life and conquering the bumps along the way. Weitz, who hasn’t made a good film since 2002’s “About a Boy”, has really crafted a genuine slice-of-life and given veteran actress Lily Tomlin a chance to shine in the third act of her career.
Tomlin has been working since the late 1960s and rarely had a top-billing role. She was nominated for an Oscar for her work in “Nashville” and will certainly be nominated for her work in “Grandma” (some Oscar prognosticators will cite her nomination as a reductive “career achievement” citation from the Academy. It’s much more than that).
As “Grandma” opens, Elle (Tomlin) is breaking up with her much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). In the moment, we learn a bit about Elle; she was a renowned poet, who hasn’t really worked in some time. She is not afraid to speak her mind, even when she might say something hurtful or plain awful. She’s tough and brash, but Weitz is not afraid to make Elle vulnerable.
One day, Elle gets a knock at her door. It’s her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who needs a little help from her grandma. She tells Elle that she is pregnant and has scheduled an abortion for 5:45 that evening. Sage is a teenager and doesn’t have any money and afraid to ask her uptight and sometimes terrifying mother (Marcia Gay Harden). Elle is currently having some financial issues but wants to help Sage.
Elle and Sage hop her classic Dodge car – which is Tomlin’s actual car – and set out to find some money. They go to the baby’s father (Nat Wolff), an old friend of Elle’s (Laverne Cox), who owes Elle money. One stop in their day gives “Grandma” real dramatic heft. They stop at the home of Karl (Sam Elliot), who has a bit of a past with Elle. Elliot and Tomlin have a wonderful scene together as ancient history rises to the surface.
Everything that happens in “Grandma” occurs in one day in Los Angeles. We stomp the pavement with Elle and Sage as they try to find the money for Sage’s abortion. This movie isn’t about what Sage needs to do but the relationships between mother and daughter and grandmother and granddaughter.
“Grandma” works on so many levels but this is a wonderful showcase for Tomlin. Her performance could have been one-note and reveled in the acerbic one-liners Elle gets to say. Tomlin’s performance is so much more nuanced than that. Elle’s toughness isn’t a shield – she really is no-nonsense – but she has had quite the life and has experienced so much. Tomlin hits every note perfectly.
“Grandma” is one of the best films of the year.
‘Grandma’ rates 9 out of 10