Writer & Director: Paul Weitz
Cinematographer: Tobias Datum
Composer: Joel P. West
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, John Cho, Sam Elliott, Nat Wolff.
Lily Tomlin had a good 2015. The 76 year old actress hadn’t worked in a couple of years since appearing as a regular in a TV show (Malibu Country) and in a Paul Weitz film (Admission). So it’s extremely humorous that in 2015 she would gain praise for appearing in a TV show (Netflix’s Grace and Frankie) and in a Paul Weitz film. While the 2013 series and film didn’t really resonate with viewers, her outings in 2015 very much did and Tomlin received nominations for one Emmy and two Golden Globes, as well as nominations for the BFCA, Gotham, and Satellite awards. For an industry that tends to reward youth it was a major feat of accomplishment.
Paul Weitz, the director of American Pie, About a Boy, and Little Fockers, wrote the screenplay for Grandma specifically to work with Tomlin a second time, the resulting film was described by the actress as the movie role that was most like her. The grandma in question is a free spirited hippie-esque and broke lesbian. We meet her as she is breaking up with her girlfriend (the great and always underused Judy Greer). Elle, Tomlin’s character’s name, has issues with intimacy and commitment since losing her partner. She is a poet who hasn’t written in years, since the mild acclaim she received years earlier. If that sounds a bit cliche it’s because it is, in fact cliches basically make up this entire film. It overall is an amusing and at times touching movie, but it definitely does not break any new barriers and never even attempts to reinvent the wheel.
The catalyst that sets the action in motion is the impromptu visit of Elle’s granddaughter Sage. Sage is played by Julia Garner, who has apparently been in several movies (some of which I’ve even seen) and yet I never noticed before. This is definitely her first “big” movie. I guess Garner does a decent job at playing a naive and self-centered teenager, although I do think her decision to play Sage a little too dumb was a mistake; the same lines could have been delivered differently without resulting in a character who reads as an archetypal sitcom character.
Sage visits her grandmother because she is pregnant and doesn’t have the money for an abortion. What follows is a very low-stakes and local road trip movie. On each stop we meet a character who will not appear later on in the film: a tatto artist (Laverne Cox), an unsympathetic coffee barista (John Cho), the deadbeat boyfriend (Nat Wolff), and Elle’s dashing ex (Sam Elliott, who infuses the film with some energy and some much needed charisma). [Note: I do love that Elliott has appeared in two films this year that told stories of women over the age of 70 and that do not focus on aging or death, rather on living a fulfilling life no matter what year one was born in.]
Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother, and isn’t really given much to do other than play the thankless role of the working mom too busy to notice her daughter’s problems and who holds a grudge towards a mother who was never there for her. She does her best, but there really is nothing there for her to do.
Grandma touches on topics that are tricky and highly divisive, such as may-december romances, homosexuality, and abortion. The approach to sexual identity and relationships in general is treated with respect and the end result is absolutely lovely. The connection between Tomlin and Greer is obvious and both actress inhabit those parts of their roles very very well, the chemistry works nicely. The abortion issue takes on a bit more of a preachy tone and feels so inorganically constructed that it took me out of the movie a bit. Regardless of my status as pro-choice, I felt that viewers who think differently would dismiss this film as Hollywood and leftist propaganda, and I couldn’t completely blame them, because some of the dialogue was too artificially constructed and eroded at the fourth wall.
Ultimately, the film is about the strength of family, the power of forgiveness, and the fact that we don’t, or shouldn’t, run out of second chances. The film is cute, albeit a little forgettable. Tomlin a force of nature and an excellent actress who is getting a chance to shine for the first time in a long time, and if this movie ends up being more of a tool to keep her around for years to come, then it does its job appropriately.