Well-written, character-driven films can be in short supply. Those in which the character who is driving (literally) is the magnificent Lily Tomlin … well, I can only think of one.
“Grandma” achieves a perfect balance in tone between comedy and drama, in which plenty of potentially melodramatic events and situations are rendered delicately, realistically, dryly, perfectly. I loved this movie.
Tomlin underplays her juicy role of Elle, a bereaved lesbian poet whose fresh-faced 18-year-old granddaughter shows up on her doorstep the morning Elle has summarily dismissed her young girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle is still mourning the loss of her lifelong partner with whom she raised her daughter, and informs Olivia that she was just a “footnote.”
The angelic-looking granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), needs her grandmother’s help with a familiar dilemma, an unwanted pregnancy. Tomlin’s character, established in the film’s first minutes as misanthropic and tough as nails, shades this woman so beautifully with compassion that you come to realize throughout the movie that what looks like crankiness is closer to common sense.
“Grandma” was written and directed by Paul Weitz, who also created one of my favorite little movies ever, “About a Boy.” His script develops Tomlin’s character perfectly, as she grows more desperate to help her granddaughter find the money she needs for her abortion. Initially she goes into ass-kicking mode, deftly, physically attacking Sage’s boyfriend when they go to him to demand the money, and he makes the mistake of threatening her.
With the clock ticking, each encounter with a potential source of cash becomes more emotionally complex, and Elle reveals more about herself and her past. Her deeply emotional encounter with a man from her past, Sam Elliot, is unforgettable, one of the best written and acted scenes I can remember.
Throughout the day, Elle and her granddaughter are avoiding the woman they both fear most, the woman in the generation between them, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden. A successful attorney, she would be the obvious person to get $500 from, but the other women will stop at nothing to avoid admitting the situation to her.
Their eventual confrontation seals the beauty of Elle’s character, as her intelligent responses to her daughter’s furious insults deepen her character even more. Above all, though, she loves her daughter and her granddaughter, and to see a woman like this rendered so powerfully, yet naturally, is an experience I will not soon forget. It is a short, perfect film, quietly revolutionary from the simple fact of its existence. Lily Tomlin’s career as a feminist icon continues.
Pop in “9 to 5” afterward for a worthwhile mini film festival.