Movie Review: Grandma
By Ben Gruchow
October 1, 2015

I miss Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda.

This film was released on August 21st, but has only now made it to theaters in my area.

What a thoughtful film this is, and what a powerful one it ends up being. Grandma has been billed as a comedy, but the dramatic elements are woven into the material right from the beginning, and even the funniest bits have an undercurrent of tension that threatens to overwhelm the mood. Those dramatic elements sneak up on the audience, gaining prevalence and consequence. By the end of the movie, I was startled to realize how moved I was, and how full the experience of the story is. Most of the movie’s success banks on a furiously energized performance by Lily Tomlin, who takes a role that could have so easily been a trivializing, pandering disaster and pulls emotional truth out of it instead. It’s one of the year’s best performances.

It doesn’t try abnormally hard to be full, or particularly try at being anything other than what it’s about. This is essential; sometimes, the stories that end up meaning the most and saying the most are those that don’t bother concerning themselves with theme or motif or explicating a larger point. The story of Grandma is very simple: Tomlin’s Elle is attempting to help her pregnant granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) acquire the funds for an abortion. Right here, we have thorny subject matter that requires a great deal of delicacy to pull off right. If writer/director Paul Weitz had stopped here, and given us a film about whether or not Sage decides to have an abortion, or about the reactions to the concept by those who are in a position to help the character achieve it, and if he had done these things honestly, we’d already be looking at a story worthy of recommendation just for chasing with clarity and dignity subject matter that most movies are too afraid to mention by name.

Weitz does not stop there, and contained within Grandma’s startlingly brisk 78 minutes is a dense and truthful narrative about the complicated ways that people cling to the past, and what form that urge to hold on takes between members of the same family, and what that can do to and for us when it comes time to test those familial connections.

Every major character in the film is related to Elle either by blood or by intimate relationship, past or current, and the character of the biggest import ends up being one who isn’t actually in the movie at all: it’s the specter of Elle’s recently deceased partner, Violet. Elle has a long way to go before she is healed from this, and Tomlin makes every line and action prickly and defensive. Every decision she’s asked to make burns away at a short fuse, informed by muted desperation, brought about by the fact that there’s another half to the decision that hasn’t yet been consulted and never will be.

It’s remarkable how thoroughly Tomlin disappears into this person, and how she makes Elle an intimidating individual on the strength of movement, intonation, even a seeming loss of control. In some of the early scenes, the movie dangerously and daringly flirts with becoming unsympathetic; Elle’s outbursts and temper flares to those around her - ostensibly in the service of procuring the necessary funds for Sage’s procedure; Elle herself has only $43 in her account, and has chopped up her credit cards seemingly to make a statement nobody was asking for - are brittle and unstable things that seem to threaten a derailment of the movie’s tone.

At the apex of this brittleness, in a confrontation set at a bookstore where Elle has gone to sell some first editions to raise the money needed, surely we’re not expected to laugh at or with this individual? But the movie has deeper things on its mind; it doesn’t care whether or not we laugh with the seeming humor of the scene as long as we remember its emotional temperature later on, and as long as we remember how forcefully Tomlin acquits herself.

Elle and Sage go to the aforementioned bookstore, to a tattoo parlor to collect an old debt, to an old friend’s house to ask for a favor. Unforeseen complications and difficulties arise at each one, and we gradually get a glimpse at what Elle’s life has been building to, and we get indications of how she got to where she is in the present. And here’s the thing: Grandma actually is quite funny in between these layered and emotionally volatile developments and revelations.

Tomlin brings an acerbic wit to Elle that trades on her defensiveness to provide a comeback or a retort to just about any challenge, and she provides merciless commentary on much of what she sees. It’s telling that in one of the very few moments where she lets her guard down and addresses a stranger with sweetness and honesty and optimism, her reward is…well, less than inciting toward future diplomacy. We may not react as Elle does in the same circumstances - but we can see why she does, and we can see how we might be motivated to do the same thing.

Here’s another thing: Grandma, having given us all sorts of sidelong glimpses and glances at Elle’s past and present, seeming to give us a whole lot of loose ends and spare parts, must eventually return to the subject of whether or not Sage will go through with the abortion procedure. Without going into detail as to the outcome, the movie treats the subject and the people and circumstances involved with respect and with care. It is not callous about abortion, but neither is it afraid of the subject. It refuses to simplify or reduce any individual involved, and someone looking for an agenda or narrative here will need to invent details and motives out of whole cloth to find one.

The entire movie eventually comes down to two pivotal scenes between Elle and Sage and the connective link between them: Judy, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden. Both of these scenes find the right note, and when the second one has concluded we realize that the loose ends and spare parts have been reconciled into a surprisingly comprehensive character portrait.

We would be lucky to get more movies like this. I haven’t touched on Judy Greer as Olivia, Elle’s estranged partner post-Violet. Nor Laverne Cox as the friend who owes Elle a debt. There truthfully isn’t enough space in this review to give these characters and the others who show up their due credit, although the movie manages to do so with little more than an hour and a quarter. Grandma’s conflict is not earth-shattering, and we know going in that time will heal the fears and doubts raised by the characters here. That doesn’t make them less significant, of course, nor does it make the cathartic moments toward the end less resonant. It fully earns a spot on the short list of this summer’s great films.