“Grandma” is the rare kind of movie, a film in which the lead character is a woman “of a certain age,” which is refreshing and wonderful because of the well documented plight of actresses in Hollywood and movies at large and how hard it is for women to get decent roles in good movies which amount to more than just “wife” or “girlfriend” or “prostitute.” Now of course this is a low budget film made outside of the system, but naturally often times the system must be fought from the outside, and this movie is a noble blow in that fight. Funny and heartfelt, this is exactly the kind of indie festival darling that has the power to break out and be seen by more people than expected, and deservedly so.
Widowed poet Elle (Lily Tomlin) starts her day by breaking up with her girlfriend of four months Olivia (Judy Greer) because Elle is incapable of saying whether or not she loves her, driving Olivia away, and before she can even recover from this trauma, she gets another surprise – her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her door asking for $630 so Sage can pay for an abortion later that evening. As Elle is broke and has no credit cards, she agrees to help Sage raise the money. And from there they go around town, visiting friends and acquaintances from whom they might be able to get the money they need. Meanwhile they naturally learn a little bit about each other and themselves along the way.
“Grandma” is one of those deceptively simple movies, with an easy set up and clear narrative that fits so cleanly but also contains layers of character development and multiple ideas. Elle is a lifelong rebel, and she’s lived her life accordingly, marching to her own drummer, and while this makes her come across as mean and insensitive to many people, it has seemed to have worked for her up until recently. As long as her wife Vie was with her, everything must have been working out, but now that she is alone, kind of estranged from her daughter and a bit of a stranger to her granddaughter, she is facing the consequences of a life lived without giving a damn about what other people think. She’s an asshole and she knows it and she may even hate herself for it, but she also knows this is who she is so in a way she is totally unapologetic about it.
Which then makes it obvious why Lily Tomlin or anyone would love to play such a part because it does afford multiple shades, all under the umbrella of a person unafraid to speak their mind at all times, a character trait that most people do not possess despite wishing they could. And of course it provides for a pretty natural character arc, that of the person who does live their life thinking they are always right and then finally coming to the realization that no one is right all the time, which then leads to a nice character change, which is what storytelling is all about anyway.
This movie also gets into some more macro points, like the whole abortion thing, for decades a hot button issue in this country, and from the movie’s perspective, getting an abortion is hardly a point for debate, as Elle is our surrogate for this story and Sage already has her mind made up, there is no argument or discussion about whether or not this is the right thing to do, it just is the right thing to do for Sage at that time. Elle, and the movie, does point out to Sage that this action does come with consequences, however, and Sage should be prepared for them, but not be burdened by them. There is even a quick bit involving a mother and daughter team of abortion protesters that Sage and Elle have to pass by, and there is a moment of profundity wrapped up in a joke about a child punching an adult, and really it plays to the possibly destructive power of parental influence on young minds, who would end up fighting for their right to believe what their parents tell them to believe. Really, the only way this movie comes down against abortion is in the idea that maybe it would be best if both people, the potential mother and father, know about the procedure ahead of time, as opposed to getting an abortion first and then letting the no longer dad to be in on it, because that can’t end well.
And of course this movie is very much about family, and how sometimes our family members are all we have left, and for some of us, this is a frightening idea. Elle’s daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) had a real problem with the way she was raised in the world and felt Elle did her wrong in some ways, and after years of resentment they had grown far apart despite living in the same city. And yet, when the chips are all on the table, when they are out of options and out of time, who does Elle and Sage go to? Of course it all comes down to family and whether or not we as family can put together our differences and squabbles in order to help each other through this ordeal known as life.
“Grandma” is fantastic and packs a nice dramatic punch. After watching this movie, it is obvious why people are really into this film and why they are praising it and Lily Tomlin so much, and after you watch this movie (which you should), you’ll get it, too.