2015 Los Angeles Film Festival: If trouble comes a-knockin’, call grandma. Or better yet, dial up Lily Tomlin to fix your accidental teenage mistake. Director Paul Weitz did just that with his appropriately titled film Grandma, a quick and fast-paced roadie of sorts that finds Lily Tomlin’s Elle Reid scouring Los Angeles to collect money for her granddaughter’s abortion procedure. Grandma is a smart and succinct character dramedy about an elderly woman’s journey to reconcile the past while ensuring her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) doesn’t receive the same malnourished parenting her own estranged daughter did. I fully expect this little indie to be an awards vehicle for Tomlin, although I actually believe this film serves a richer purpose than simply putting a legendary actress on a pedestal and letting her “do her thang.” Dig a little deeper and you might discover that distributor Sony Pictures Classics stumbled onto something both poignant and necessarily unique – Hollywood doesn’t make original American films about women well into their seventies anymore. Watching Grandma makes you realize what a total shame that is.
There’s laughs to be had with this Sundance hit, but the film works best when it takes meditative breaks from the routine slapstick and predictable scene-chewery from Tomlin. Tomlin, still a fierce and audacious lightning rod of talent, delivers her finest moments in Grandma when guilt seeps into her facial expressions. Elle is so embarrassed by her own harshness and past misdeeds that she uses dark humor to mask her inner self-loathing. Elle’s partner of over three decades, Violet, recently passed away; Elle’s daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) cherishes “Momma Vee” more than her living biological mother; Elle’s career as a renowned poet has all but evaporated, and she’s pushed aside current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) like she’s some wide-eyed child nuisance who needs to find her own age-appropriate group of friends. Elle’s had it tough but not once does Grandma’s script make excuses for its protagonist’s awful behavior.
What’s so fascinating about Grandma is how it transforms a loud-mouthed brute — who talks over everyone and excoriates them until there’s nothing left but ashes – into a listener who voluntary stands in the background in full support and without judgment. Elle comes to realize that Sage’s future matters far more than her own, and by simmering down her own explosive persona she ends up awakening Sage’s adult voice in the process. Julia Garner is exceptional as Sage, a young girl whose insecurities derive from the predominantly sexist worldview of teenage girls who become sexually active and get pregnant as a result. Sage is more scared of being labeled a “slut” than she is of dying; Sage’s fear of public shaming serves as a reminder of how much damage we do to our youth just by projecting ignorance and pretending to take the moral high ground. Don’t get it wrong, though — Sage definitely isn’t walking away from this ordeal without penance. She and Elle are literally paying for the mistake of unprotected sex. Grandma never sugercoats the financial burden associated with teenage pregnancy and the subsequent medical procedure that costs a small fortune for a young person with zero income.
Certain cameos in Grandma work better than others. Marcia Gay Harden as Elle’s uptight daughter Judy and Laverne Cox’s empathetic tattoo artist/unlicensed life coach Deathy, for instance, buoy the film as a slice of dramatic significance, revealing both the positive and damaging effects Elle has had on people close to her heart. Judy Greer, Nat Wolff and Sam Elliot’s characterizations simply did not work for me. Greer’s Olivia too often doesn’t mind being a doormat so long as she knows Elle loves her. Wolff, as the slacker boyfriend who gets Sage pregnant, is your typical stoner caricature who has no respect for anyone or anything except the ganja; he’s completely one-dimensional and primarily utilized for tonally jarring slapstick effect. Sam Elliot as Karl, former husband of Elle when she was pretending to be “straight,” awkwardly juggles humor and sadness to such obnoxious degree that he winds up becoming a histrionic disaster on two legs.
Other than a few problematic casting choices and broadly written characters Elle and Sage run into along the way, Grandma stands tall as a multigenerational short story of female empowerment. That an indie movie dealing with a dysfunctional drama can be dark without sappy resolutions or saturating its narrative with sentimentality is a major triumph in itself. Lily Tomlin could very well find herself Oscar-nominated once more, but perhaps the greater accomplishment is how vital her rebellious nature remains in this current age of cinema. Antiheroes are the new fad in Hollywood, while women continue to play the innocent and demure damsels in distress. Stories of antiheroines, however, are few and far between. Tomlin continues to close that crucial gap with the small-scale yet thematically wide-reaching Grandma.
Paul Weitz’s Grandma served as the opening night film at this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The movie will be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics in select cities starting August 21st, 2015. Check out a clip of the film below!