In terms of cinema, Grandma does a rare thing: it sneaks up on you. Written and directed by Paul Weitz, this is sort of comedy that is easy to summarize, yet that would betray its depth. The stakes are relatively low and have a tidy resolution, at least on one level, but Weitz and his cast drill down into the emotion that informs every character decision, no matter how big or small. The cumulative effect is powerful. We understand these character so well that a throwaway line or a glance can arrive with an intense, tragic force. But Grandma is also so entertaining, so seemingly effortless, that it also happens to be a lot of fun, too.
Lily Tomlin, in a performance that will earn her an Academy Award nomination, stars as an aging poet named Elle. When we first meet Elle, she’s breaking up with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). At first, Elle’s ambivalence over Olivia is shocking, even cruel, then Weisz makes a crucial decision: he later cuts to Elle sobbing in the shower. This is the most important shot in the movie, one that humanizes everything that follows, which is necessary since Elle can be an asshole.
That morning Elle gets a surprise visit from her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who has an ulterior motive beyond pleasantries: she needs money for an abortion, and the appointment is that afternoon. Elle is broke– Weitz ties this plot point to character in a hilarious way – so Grandma becomes a road movie where she and Sage try and scrounge up the cash.
We learn a lot about Elle throughout the day, including the circumstances of her becoming a mother, and it’s to Weitz’s credit that she is likable without compromising herself. His style is unassuming, effective: his handheld camera follows Elle as if it’s her grandchild, too, so we’re constantly caught off guard by her antics. Of course, most of the credit belongs to Tomlin. She gives a terrific performance insofar that I cannot imagine anyone else playing Elle. She is a misanthrope who does not suffer fools gladly (at one point, she assaults Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend with a hockey stick), yet she is also loyal and self-deprecating. Elle is a moderately well-known poet, and Weitz suggests the life of an artist in a simple way: he has Tomlin act bored about it. And when there is a conversation about her poetry, Weitz uses it as a gag for the more unpleasant parts of fandom.
The more interesting, thought-provoking thing is how Elle serves as a catalyst for the behavior of others. We understand where she’s coming from, so smaller characters have nuance simply by their reaction to her. Olivia is not merely a wronged lover: she’s empathetic and intelligent, and has a way of getting under Elle’s skin. The standout secondary characters are Deathy (Laverne Cox), a tattoo artist, as well as Karl (Sam Elliott), a man with whom Elle had an affair. The Karl arc is full of a great one-liners, and also haunting: it reminds us that while a woman’s right to control her body is absolute, there is an emotional component to abortion, for both men and women.
If you had told me in 1999 that the writer and director of American Pie would go on to make a thoughtful movie about abortion, I would have probably laughed. Yet the kernels that would eventually inform Grandma are there in American Pie: Weitz has tenderness for his characters, and goes out of his way to accept their faults. While Sage’s day is difficult, sometimes harrowing, Elle does little to sugarcoat it, and in Tomlin/Weitz’s hands this approach is more loving than more straightforward support. Elle is acutely aware of her age, whether it’s through Sage’s inexperience or the fact that she’s a widower. Grandma ends with the wisdom that advanced age means more looking back, not forward. Its drama and humor come from a corollary to that wisdom: even if someone is older, it does not mean they’re done yet. That seems obvious, sure, but look at how Grandma ends and see just how easy we forget it, too.