Grandma (15) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir. Paul Weitz, USA, 2015, 79 mins

Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcy Gay Harden

Lily Tomlin quests like a 21st Century Odysseus as she attempts to scrape together $630 with her granddaughter to fund an abortion. They are both broke and the trip around town to visit figures from Tomlin’s past create the backbone of this complex but neatly packaged road trip movie. It’s a journey of feminist discovery (both for the academically-versed grandmother and her uninitiated granddaughter), inter-generational bonding, humour and liberation. The unlikely heroine just happens to be a cantankerous and mouthy grandmother of ‘knocked-up teen’, Sage, played by Julia Garner.

Tomlin’s character, Elle, is every inch her feminine article. She has recently lost her girlfriend Violet to long-term illness while her current girlfriend is unceremoniously and literally sent packing in the opening sequence of the film just before Sage enters with her dilemma. Elle raised Sage with the departed Violet for much of her life and this mother/grandma position is vital for the drive to help Sage fulfil the choice she has pre-booked for 5.45pm that afternoon.

The film is candidness personified. Abortion is discussed and all but shown, in a straightforward manner with Elle cutting through any number of profanities to get to the truth of the matter. They first visit the pathetic “sort of boyfriend” with armpit hair for a beard, who is rather a throw-away stereotype – but is so, to hilarious effect. Modern teenage standards do not impress Elle as her crusade against the ignorance of her granddaughter’s generation sees her use a hockey stick to ensure American Idiot boyfriend Ian is unlikely to create this same problem twice. She also pours her coffee on the floor all the way from her table to the door – when discussing Sage’s abortion causes ‘offence’ to fellow customers – according to a prudish bean beverage shop owner played by John Cho.

Despite Tomlin tearing up the screen with Paul Weitz’s words in her mouth and his hand directing her movements, there is a solid series of fringe cast members orbiting this particular Venus. Julia Garner visibly grows from a hapless anachronism to a wise(r) young woman with some surprisingly emotional scenes considering the pervading comedy. Another notable performance goes to Judy –the workaholic mother of Sage; Marcy Gay Harden who makes a swerve out of caricature through a combination of context and off-screen contemplation. The unconventional relationship between the lesbian grandma Elle, her busy daughter Judy, the product of a one-night stand and who chose sperm donation to have her daughter Sage, who is of course in her turn seeking an abortion is the emotional heart of the finale. Each generation is never judged by Weitz, other characters may have problems with aspects of each other, but it is a remarkably warm and communal treatment of a subject often seen as a lonely and unsupported choice.

Grandma is a loosely reminiscent of O, Brother Where Art Thou? in its comical treatment of Homer, whereby fantastic scenarios are thrown together in a series of distinct chapters. Unlike the Coen’s caper, Homer does not receive a writing credit here, despite a section labelled “Ogre” (featuring the gravelly heterosexual old flame, Sam Elliott). The comparison looms larger given the series of feminist tomes that feature heavily across Grandma. Homer’s patriarchal oeuvre has long been in the feminist firing line. It’s a playful theme to weave into a film which does so much looking back, whilst being firmly rooted in contemporary satire.

Grandma screened at the BFI London Film Festival, and opened throughout the UK on December 11 through Sony Pictures Releasing (UK).