Read Clayton’s take on “Grandma” here.
In a lot of ways, Grandma is a film that manages to sneak up on you. For about two thirds of its brisk running time, writer/director Paul Weitz is crafting a very funny and periodically poignant road trip dramedy that serves as a brilliant star vehicle for Lily Tomlin. Then, we get to the third act and things take a deeply emotional turn. I was truly blown away by the work not only that Tomlin and Weitz put in, but also the small supporting turn from Sam Elliot. All of the Oscar buzz surrounding Tomlin for Best Actress is warranted and well founded, believe me there, but I think it’ll be a crime if Elliot isn’t remembered in Best Supporting Actor at the end of the year. He turns in the epitome of a perfect supporting performance, but more on him later. This is pretty much Tomlin’s show, so it’s a true credit to her that this is the success that it is. With solid direction, strong writing, and some of the best acting of any film so far in 2015, Grandma is a legitimately great flick. I loved it back this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival and I still love it now. For my money, Grandma is one of the ten best things to hit theaters this year. Don’t you dare miss it, as it’s something special and quite possibly an awards season player to boot.
The film gets going quickly, as we’re introduced to hippy Elle (Tomlin), who’s breaking up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). It’s a funny and sad scene all at the same time, letting us a learn a lot about the woman we’re about to follow for the next 79 minutes. We then meet teenager Sage (Julia Garner), who’s just found out that’s she pregnant and isn’t initially sure what to do. Afraid to tell her Type A mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), she instead goes to her grandmother Elle, seeking money for an abortion. Elle has just cut up her credit cards and is broke herself, so instead of leaving her granddaughter high and dry, they get in her car and begin a day long road trip in search of the funds. They hit up Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff) at first, but that goes nowhere. From then on, we see Elle talking to friends and trying to help out her granddaughter, possibly for the first time in her life. I won’t spoil what happens towards the end of the film, but the third act starts with a visit to a man from Elle’s past named Karl (Elliot). That’s where things first begin to get emotional. I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up on more than one occasion over the final half hour of the movie or so. It really becomes something deep and warm then. It becomes a rather beautiful film about different generations of women from the same family and how they’re not quite the strangers they think they are.
You really can’t say enough about Lily Tomlin here. This is the role she was born to play and hands down the best work of an already stellar career. She’s very funny, quietly moving, and deeply sarcastic. This is a lived in performance that has taken a lifetime for her to perfect. Not only is she deserving of a Best Actress nomination for this work, I wouldn’t be shocked if she winds up the frontrunner at some point. She’d certainly deserve the win. Just as good in his one long scene is Sam Elliot, who is able to put forward decades heartache, pain, and regret into what otherwise could have been much less of a character. Watching Elliot and Tomlin take a walk down memory lane, slowly revealing what they mean to each other, it’s almost like a short film all its own. When you finally realize what it all means, your heart might break. Elliot is so deserving of a Supporting Actor citation it’s not even funny. Few snubs this year will hurt more than this potential one. If he catches on with the precursors though, he could certainly get in and save me that pain. Aside from these two brilliant performances, you also have Julia Garner as somewhat of a co-lead with Tomlin, and she’s very good as well. Her character is always secondary though, so it’s no fault of her own, but we’re far more concerned with Elle most of the time than Sage. The supporting turns from Judy Greer and Marcia Gay Harden are strong as well, with the aforementioned Nat Wolff contributing as well. Also in the supporting cast are the likes of John Cho, Laverne Cox (very good in her small role), Elizabeth Peña, and more. Everyone pulls their weight, but it’s Elliot and Tomlin who will stay with you long after the movie ends.
This is certainly the best work to date from filmmaker Paul Weitz, who really steps up his game here. His screenplay is touching, realistic, and full of heart, while his direction never takes the focus away from the actors and the top notch dialogue, with particular affection given from him to Tomlin, obviously. Weitz has done solid work in the past with his brother Chris Weitz on things like About a Boy (which got them a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination) and American Pie, while his solo filmmaking career has been nothing to sneeze at either with things like Being Flynn and In Good Company. Still, Grandma represents a leap forward and something that the Academy should really take notice of. It takes a divisive issue in abortion and doesn’t play coy with it at all, making the story about emotion and relationships (along with humor, yes), instead of politics. Weitz acts like a grown up and expects his audience to act the same way. It’s sneaky just how good this turns out to be.
It is my sincere hope that Oscar doesn’t forget about Grandma. Best Actress for Tomlin, Best Supporting Actor for Elliot, and Best Original Screenplay for Weitz should all be possibilities here for this deeply deserving bit of cinema. This is a tremendously good flick. Fans of Tomlin will cherish her work here, but everything about it is just top notch. At under 80 minutes, I’d argue that this is even perhaps a bit too short, but leaving you wanting more is hardly a compliment. Films like this don’t come along every week, so don’t ignore it. Grandma is one of the best movies of the year so far, so make it your business to see it ASAP. You can thank me later.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!