Movie Review: Grandma
By Ben Gruchow
October 1, 2015
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.