Tuesday, September 22, 2015
It is mildly surprising that Grandma hasn’t drawn approbation from the same voices that called Mad Max : Fury Road part of a feminist conspiracy. The way that writer/director Paul Weitz’s script treats abortion as an unwelcome but necessary event in the life of many women is welcome for its lack of hand-wringing or clichéd rhetoric. The right to terminate a pregnancy is treated as just that, a right, and it’s that choice that brings high-schooler Sage (Julia Garner) to the doorstep of her grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin) one morning. Sage is pregnant by a disinterested boyfriend (Nat Wolff) and needs money to pay for an abortion. She’s afraid of her high-powered mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden, who enters late in a role that’s a hair too obvious) and thinks Elle is her best chance for help. Her appointment is in 9 hours.
Grandma is an assertion of not only of a woman’s right to reproductive choice, but also to her own irascibility. Elle, a lesbian poet first seen breaking up with a younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), is still mourning the death of her longtime partner and not inclined to live up to anyone’s expectations. We don’t hear much about Elle as a parent, but Harden and Garner play their roles with an edge that suggests temper runs in the family. The day that Elle and Sage sped together is a tour through Elle’s past, and the encounters with a café owner (the late Elizabeth Pena) and a tattoo artist (Laverne Cox) reveal Elle as a friend by turns loyal and combative. Elle is, as the Grandma poster says, Tomlin’s best role since Nashville, and it’s a case of perfect casting. The biting wit of Elle feels perfectly tailored to Tomlin’s personality, but Tomlin keeps a reserve of emotion bubbling underneath that suggests that while Elle has plenty of memories she doesn’t have many regrets. (Grandma is not a film that traffics in sentiment.) Most surprising is Elle’s encounter with her ex-husband Karl, played by Sam Elliott in a searing cameo. Karl is a man still in love, and his reaction to Elle’s request for help points up the fact that choices made in the moment can have deep resonance in the future. This is an excellent performance by Sam Elliott, and one that points to a career that might have been.
Grandma isn’t a message movie it’s a human movie. Weitz ends with a reconciliation, but he offers little resolution. The final shot of Elle serves both as valentine to the character and a perfect summation of Lily Tomlin’s career. This story of complicated women might just be one of the most needed films of the year.