After her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), has confided to her that she needs an abortion, Elle (Lily Tomlin) cuts right to the heart of the issue. Not the politics, mind you. Nor the question of how a modern teenager like Sage, someone with plenty of birth-control options, found herself in this position. Elle says the wisest and most honest thing that can be said at a moment like this. She asks Sage if she’s sure that this is what she wants, because, at one time or another, she will think about this decision every day for the rest of her life. She then tells Sage that she herself has done something radical, as in cut up her credit cards, because people who have them are like pod people, leaving the two on a quest to find the $600 dollars Sage will need for her clinic appointment at 6:45. For Sage, it will be an oddly empowering journey, as she learns from her feminist-poet of a grandmother that it’s not okay to take crap off anyone, including Elle herself. For Elle, it will be a nostalgic, but not necessarily a pleasant, trip into her past, the past before Vi, her lover of 38 years died after a long illness, before she brusquely dismissed her current lover (Judy Greer, interview here) of four months as a footnote, and before she cut herself off from the rest of the world.
Sailing through the streets of Los Angeles in Vi’s vintage boat of a car, Elle seeks cash from sources that are obvious, disconcerting, and sometimes both. From taking Sage’s baby-daddy down with several well-crafted ripostes, and an even better crafted low blow of a more direct variety, to swallowing a great deal of pride, but not spirit, when calling on her last male lover (Sam Elliot), to the inevitable visit to her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), an affluent, hard-as-nails attorney with all of Elle’s drive, but none of her humor, Elle is both teacher and student for a granddaughter who looks askance, but eventually questions her mother’s assertion that Grandma is crazy. Or that, if she is, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. And we are treated to a glimpse of what it’s like to live life boldly and without apology. Elle is not always right, but somehow, she’s never quite wrong. It’s a delicious complexity, sublimely realized by writer/director Paul Weitz’s ability to balance comedy, compassion, and a fine sense of how tricky the truth can be. And, of course, the muse he has found in Tomlin, who by rights should be nominated for an Oscar™ for this virtuoso turn.
Tomlin is in every frame of the story: sarcastic, vulnerable, tough, wise, foolish, sentimental, stubborn, and stubbornly, beautifully, perfect in her imperfections. When Elle confronts a café owner over his bad coffee, and dislike of her making other customers uncomfortable for having a loud conversation about abortion in his establishment, Tomlin brings a history of female repression to Elle’s bombastic response, and the self-confident acceptance of a fully realized being when Sage, embarrassed beyond belief, points out that she has gotten one of her facts wrong in the tirade. There’s the trademark Tomlin smile, the crinkle and twinkle of the eyes as Elle recognizes the spirit taking hold in her granddaughter, who may not know who Betty Friedan was, but who is her cultural heir, needing only Elle’s nudge.
GRANDMA is a sharply observed film about the unintended consequences of deliberate choices. It is not a coincidence that both Elle and Judy deliberately chose motherhood without the strings a relationship with the father would bring. Nor is it a coincidence that Judy became everything that Elle’s fight for gender equality wanted. Nor that Elle has been afraid of Judy since the child was five. It’s emblematic of the bittersweet tone that celebrates the absurdity of life in all its glory, and our essential, inescapable need for one another in good time and in bad.
Lily Tomlin and Paul Weitz talk GRANDMA. Click here for the audio.