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