A lot of fun with an emotional punch, Paul Weitz’s Grandma is an Oscar-worthy tour de force for Lily Tomlin as a rambunctious lesbian feminist grandmother taking her granddaughter on a road trip to find money for her abortion.
Bad Grandmaby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Seventy-plus Elle, a charismatic, feminist academic and poet (Lily Tomlin in a virtuoso performance) is the polar opposite of a little old lady. She doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything or anyone. Actually, she does. Whilst single-mindedly rampaging roughshod over conventional politenesses, she secretly cares a lot for her granddaughter, daughter, female student lover, and she’s still grieving the death of her lesbian lover of many years, but she hides her emotions beneath an aggressive, expletive-laden carapace.
At the start of an action-filled day, we see her brutally evict her much younger lover Olivia (Judy Greer), only to sob heart-rendingly in the shower once she has left. So we see she’s a mass of contradictions, which are set to be unravelled as the day unfolds. Teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives, dropping the bombshell of her unwanted pregnancy and hoping to use her grandmother as a lender of last resort for the $630 she needs for the abortion she’s booked in for that afternoon. She feels she can’t ask her dominating, judgmental lawyer mother (Marcia Gay Harden). No pressure then, and not helped by the fact that Elle is broke after paying the medical bills for Violet, her deceased lover of 38 years, and has cut up her worthless credit cards to make wind chimes.
So they set off together in Elle’s decrepit, unreliable 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer – Tomlin’s own – on a frantic road trip to try and borrow the cash. First stop is the reluctant father, who, when he fails to step up to the plate gets an award-winningly sweary piece of Elle’s mind and a satisfying, very businesslike swipe where it matters from an enraged septuagenarian with a baseball bat. If she’d met him earlier, maybe the problem would never have arisen.
As they traverse Los Angeles, tapping her hitherto neglected circle of friends and ex-lovers for money, Elle is forced into painful contact with unresolved issues from her past and the sixties’ women’s lib counterculture that she was part of. There’s the transexual tatooist (Laverne Cox), the feminist bookshop owner (Elizabeth Peña) and, amongst all these women, a man, who even after all these years still feels hurt by her (gravel-voiced Sam Elliott). All of them have issues with Elle, which she is now forced, by trying to help Sage, to stop running away from and confront.
Through it all, what Elle is doing is implicitly giving her granddaughter a crash course in feminism, something her generation has been able to be blasé about. Seemingly, what Elle fought for and maybe sacrificed for is no longer valued. Symbolically, her prized signed copy of seminal women’s lib text The Feminine Mystique, which she hoped to raise money by selling, she discovers is worthless in the contemporary world and its title means nothing to sage Sage, who thinks it’s a character in X-Men. Great line, and representative of the pacy screenplay.
Maybe it’s a first for an abortion comedy. But the premise enables the underlying focus on the legacy of women’s liberation from the 1960s, and how it has filtered down to the present through generations of women, from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. Lily Tomlin holds it all together superbly and her character is so refreshing – and so rare – to see on screen. Not a poor little old lady, not a cantankerous mad old bat, but a living, breathing, thinking, foul-mouthed, fit and powerful mature woman of ability and resourcefulness, who refuses to be ordinary or second-rate and insists on doing things in her own original way, no matter the personal cost. And also very witty, of course, as Tomlin indeed is in real life – so it seems a role she was born to play and has aged into.
Grandma is released on 11th December 2015 in the UK