Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Wolff, Sam Elliott
MPAA Rating: (for language and some drug use)
Running Time: 1:19
Release Date: 8/21/15 (limited); 8/28/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 3, 2015
Not one character in Grandma comes away worse for the wear after this long and trying day, unless that character chooses to do so. That's a comforting notion.
Choice is at the heart of writer/director Paul Weitz' film. There are no good choices and no bad ones, either. There are only the ones the characters have determined they need to make under their specific circumstances. The choices of the past were made in the same way, and the results also are neither good nor bad. They simply shaped the way things are now for these characters. The question is whether they will decide to let the way things are stand or to try something different. It's a basic concept—pretty much the heart of drama.
The film tells a simple story with a precise, unflinching focus on its characters. These are, in the popular vernacular, "flawed" people, filled with anger and resentment and uncertainty and regret. Those feelings drive them—have always driven them. They don't know how they got where they are in life, and they're not sure where they're going. They sure as hell aren't happy about the present, and the prospect of the future doesn't look too promising. There are few certainties for these characters, and even the things they believed were certain—family, love, and a sense of purpose—have drifted out of their lives without them really noticing it.
Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) notices it now. She's in her 70s, and at the start of the film, she is in the midst of breaking up with her current girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), who is a few decades Elle's junior. Olivia tells Elle that she loves her. Elle responds that Olivia is "just a footnote." She's the kind of woman who says what she wants to say, although, when we see her sobbing in the shower after Olivia leaves, we're left wondering if she really means what she says. Tomlin's vivid performance plays these things close to the chest but not so close that we don't see them.
Elle's partner of a few decades died about a year and a half ago. This isn't the reason Elle is the way she is. One of the pleasures of Weitz' screenplay is that it doesn't provide some specific event—a trauma or a tragedy—as an explanation for why these characters behave the way they do or for their personalities.
Elle was, as far as we can tell, always like this. Her partner Violet, whose name is tattooed on the inside of one of Elle's wrists (along with a dragonfly on her shoulder to signify her most famous work and, later, an "O" that she insists is just a circle—not the first letter of a certain person's name), provided a counterweight to Elle's brash nature. In exchange, Elle evened out the effect of Violet's sweetness and generosity. Everyone who knew Violet misses her. Elle's departure from the mortal coil likely will elicit a different reaction from some folks.
One person who still likes Elle is her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who arrives at her grandmother's house shortly after the breakup. Sage is pregnant, and she has decided to have an abortion. Her appointment is that evening, and Elle is the only person she thinks would give her the money she needs for the procedure. Elle, broke and having cut up her credit cards in an act of defiance, gets Violet's old car started and takes her granddaughter with her to try to call in the few favors she has left.
That's it in terms of the story, really, but this isn't a film with a need for much of a plot. The grandmother and granddaughter talk while driving between their stops to the boyfriend (Nat Wolff) who doesn't see grandma coming, to the coffee shop where Olivia works, to—much to the dread of both Elle and her granddaughter—Sage's mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Their conversations are revealing but unforced. We learn about Elle's relationships, her career as a poet, her regrets, and, obviously, her love for her granddaughter, which she shows by insisting that the girl needs to say a few choice words more often to the people who deserve it—even if it's her grandmother.
These little interludes only tell us Elle's perspective on herself and her life. As honest as she is about those subjects (and as obvious as it is when she's not being entirely truthful), it's when the film shows her confronting those who have been left in her considerable wake that it really bursts to life. The scene introducing Judy, who is probably a little too much like Elle for either woman's comfort, is what we expect, as mother and daughter trade accusations for why things are as they are between them. When Elle unexpectedly runs into Olivia again, she dodges her obvious pain over the breakup.
The scene that really sticks is one between Elle and Karl (Sam Elliott, phenomenal in his brief appearance), her husband from another life whom she walked out on some 35 years ago. It's an extended scene that seems to exist separate from the rest of the film, but it does so in a way that tells us everything we need to know about these two characters and their history in a relatively short but exceptionally revealing period of time. There are heartache and a little desperation on his end, while a little lie on her end subtly sets up the scene's final punch.
The film's final effect comes from an almost imperceptible culmination of these scenes, and it's surprisingly affecting. We see Elle's priorities harden throughout Grandma, but we also see her desire to maintain the status quo soften. She may be alone at the end of this particular day, but for once in a long time, tomorrow promises something else.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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