Lily Tomlin’s hot streak continues in her golden years as she tackles the titular role in Grandma (2015). As Elle Reid, Tomlin is a feisty lesbian matriarch helping her granddaughter collect funds for her impending abortion. Part road movie, part ethics play, all heartwarming comedy, writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, Admission) brings to the screen another lovely entry in his own body of work that has been centred on the tender ties that bind family and friends together.
In spite of the narrative circumstances, the characters are lovingly drawn, the action is compelling and humour-filled and the film’s focus on the contemplation of life’s major choices and consequences make Grandma a compelling watch. When Elle’s teen granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up unannounced and needing more than $600 for an abortion, Elle steps up to the plate and the team visit a series of Elle’s friends and lovers who may be able to help out. Elle has actively shuttered herself away, physically and emotionally, choosing to play acerbic liberal and alienating others in the process. Sage’s arrival signals a thaw, a chance for Elle to reconcile with the relationships she has broken and to bond with Sage over the similar choices she has had to make.
While Tomlin tends to steal every scene she is in with her glib quips and layers upon layers of loaded emotional moments, Garner is game to match her beat for beat. Dancing on the edge of ‘whiny teen’, Garner stays rooted in Sage’s predicament while maintaining a sympathetic position. Together, they’re an enticing pair. Divided into chapters, each interaction with someone from Elle’s life provides a lesson to be learned, a choice to be mulled over and Sage comes to understand through Elle’s experiences that no decision is every easy. Moreover, Weitz has assembled a top-notch supporting cast that help to elevate Grandma from plain to perky. Judy Greer, Sam Elliot, Laverne Cox and Marcia Gay Harden shine in their respective roles as ex-girlfriend, ex-boyfriend, tattoo artist mate and daughter. Weitz’s script gives each of them enough to work with, to showcase their chops and meaningfully contribute – although Cox is arguably cast in a throwaway role.
In spite of a glowing ensemble, there is something off-centre about the whole affair. While comparisons can be drawn to another hit abortion comedy – Obvious Child – Grandma seems to use Sage’s abortion as a gimmick to draw us in to Elle’s own drama. There’s no clear-cut moral stance drawn on the topic, there is rarely any drawn out or contemplative conversation around it. Rather, Sage’s abortion is a plot point without a point. Moreover, Weitz’s direction and writing – while maintaining itself as a carefully considered women’s film – seems to move at odd paces, forcing viewers to navigate intense emotional peaks with major dips in tempo and tone. Overall, Grandma is utterly charming and Lily Tomlin proves that she is still the comic whipper-snapper we have always loved.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem