Sundance 2015: ‘Grandma’ tailor-made to showcase Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin in "Grandma"
Lily Tomlin in “Grandma”

Written by Paul Weitz
Directed by Paul Weitz
USA, 2015

Director Paul Weitz (About A Boy, American Dreamz) has tailor-made Grandma to showcase the strength of comedy legend Lily Tomlin. As poet Elle Reid, her wry personality has an overpowering screen presence that is entertaining, but comes at the expense a talented supporting cast that is made to funnel all attention back to her. The fact that Tomlin came out of the closet late in life adds depth to her portrayal of a woman who absolutely owns her success and sexuality. Elle’s teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner of Electrick Children) comes to Elle in desperate need of terminating an unwanted pregnancy and so ensues a quirky, caustic road trip to procure enough money to get it done.

Elle verbally bulldozes old friends, family, and lovers for the money. Proudly uncouth, she barely flinches while she tells everyone just the way the world works. She doesn’t set out to confront or conquer her demons, but by barging into the lives of long lost companions, she encounters a pushback on the misdeeds of her past that she didn’t anticipate. The principal weakness of Grandma is that there isn’t anyone else remotely on Elle’s level. She’s intellectually intimidating and physically threatens people knowing that they can’t touch her. The only way one can sidestep a measure of her wrath is to deny her, which in turn is to deny her granddaughter’s situation. The late Elizabeth Peña shows up for a moment to scoff at Elle, as does the charismatic Laverne Cox and a meek John Cho. Elle lays down an emotional warpath with every monetary request that wears thin on the audience after a while, walking away almost entirely unscathed by each encounter. Only Sam Elliott’s Karl, a boyfriend left in the dust for decades, has the the guts and the ammunition to tell her off. Elliott sways between undying affection and wounded rage with grace. Elle might be more venomous than usual as she’s been dealing with the death of her partner of 39 years, but it’s obvious that she’s been careful throughout her life to never resolve the feelings of anyone she’s left behind – or,for that matter, her own.

Julia Garner’s passive, wide-eyed reactions to her grandmother’s extreme maneuvers in effect make the story drag her along to revisit Elle’s life. She regards her much like everyone else: with a mixture of admiration and terror. It would have been compelling to delve into Sage’s life much beyond the embarrassments that her grandmother heaps upon her and the whirling, over-caffeinated tirades that her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) goes on, but this is Tomlin’s show. The action isn’t as fluid or inventive as it could be, but there are plenty of laughs whenever Tomlin gets particularly scrappy. A scene in which she accosts the loser boy who has gotten Sage in trouble hits the mark.

The subject of abortion is treated casually and as a guaranteed right. The movie doesn’t touch all the legislation that has been enacted to impede access to choice across the countr, which is unfortunate, but might have stalled the plot. The only obstacle is getting the money. It’s a minor wonder that Sage isn’t shamed for wanting and needing to make that choice for herself, that she is entrusted to know what is best for her. If there’s a bold and admirable feminist statement in Grandma– it’s that women are fallible and make mistakes; they can’t be everything to everyone. The best they can be is true to themselves.

Without being preachy, Grandma is about women’s relationships- the good, the bad, and the complicated. Elle Reid’s parade of anger through her broken past is a reminder of how much she still needs others to survive, even though she has already weathered most of life by putting up treacherous barricades to letting others in. Grandma isn’t a crowning achievement in itself, and whether or not Elle amends her callous ways is surprisingly not of that much concern to the filmmaker, merely that we see the intrepid force of Tomlin’s fierce performance.

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