This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival.
In introducing his latest film at the opening night of the Los Angeles Film Festival, writer/director Paul Weitz mentioned that his inspiration for making “Grandma” was in to spend some “quality time” with star Lily Tomlin. So he wrote a script with her in every scene. The resulting film is just that: some truly entertaining quality time in the company of this legend. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to have Lily Tomlin as your straight-shooting grandmother, “Grandma” is the fix you need for the lack of that in your real life.
Tomlin is Elle, a poet, and in the opening scene, we get to know her brutally honest personality as she dumps her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), in the harshest of ways. Elle’s a softie though, she just doesn’t really show it to anyone else. It’s a difficult scene to introduce our lead, but we know what we’re going to get with her. Throughout the course of the film, we get know Elle as she really is: a salty, rabble-rousing free spirit who doesn’t give a whip about what other people think. The best possible onscreen role model, basically.
The plot is set in motion when Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up on her doorstep, in a family way, and needing money for the abortion. The two set off on a day-long journey to scrounge up the cash in time for the 5:45 appointment. As Elle attempts to suss out just who in her life she might be able to borrow money from, we get a bit of a “This is Your Life” plot, where she seeks out old friends, old flames, and finally her ferocious daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), a hard-charging and over-caffeinated executive, who has taken all of the hard bits she got from her mother, and honed them to a razor’s edge.
The best part about “Grandma” is the sensitive and insightful script by Weitz—every line is instantly quotable, little nuggets of sardonic life wisdom that should be needlepointed onto a pillow. Tomlin is obviously a delight, and truly, it’s a treat to spend the time with her. Garner is a winsome waif who holds her own against Tomlin, a thoroughly modern foil to Elle’s second-wave feminism. Still, it’s clear that Sage as much to learn from Grandma, and Grandma’s still learning herself.
A true standout performance comes from Sam Elliott, who plays Carl, an old friend of Elle’s and one of their stops along the way. Elliott, who often is playing some version of “Sam Elliott,” gives a truly stripped down and vulnerable performance in his short time on screen. He’s charming, seductive, and heartbreaking, in that order, and it’s the finest work we’ve seen from him recently. His presence supports the film’s unshowy thesis that asserts the humanity and personhood of older people—they are sexy and flawed works-in-progress, even if they are also “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” The film’s title is a cheeky nod to this, because this grandma ain’t like any other grandma that’s been on screen; this one is tough and violent and sassy and scared, a fully developed, fully realized person whose company it is a pleasure to be in.
On the surface, “Grandma” is a simple story, but the script imbues it with deep reserves of emotional depth and meaning that are slowly, organically revealed over the course of the plot. It’s a “day in the life” film that manages to portray a whole life in one day. Paul Weitz had good instincts about his leading lady and the two make the perfect pair. [A-]