Grandma is a lovely film. An inter-generational road trip fuelled by the majesty that is Lily Tomlin, it is an ode to the power of women, and the potency of sisterhood, motherhood, and the bond like-minded women can share. Tomlin’s Elle, a well-regarded poet and professor in her 70’s, guides this day-in-the-life of her teenage granddaughter in trouble, Sage (Julia Garner), and offers a gloves-off look at the problems with society and youth today. Though it at times misses its mark, Paul Weitz’s Grandma has a noble goal and a fairly well directed execution. That, and it has Tomlin.
Having just ended her short-lived, but passionate, relationship with Olivia (Judy Greer), Elle (Tomlin) is paid a visit by her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Garner): she’s pregnant, and needs $600 for the most reasonably priced, safe abortion in town. Grandma, unfortunately, is without cash, having just paid off all of her debts, and cut up her credit cards in order to make charmingly bohemian wind chimes that now decorate her backyard. Going to Sage’s Mom, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), is out of the question; a high-profile executive, she would not be the most understanding of Sage’s predicament, let alone be willing to supply her with the cash. That being the case, the two set off on a daylong road trip around LA to get the money in order to have the procedure by days end.
Paying a visit to Sage’s deadbeat “boyfriend”, Cam (Nat Wolff), proves fruitless, as the little punk only has $50 to his name. Sadly, our introduction to the father of Sage’s child is just as useless as he is. Poorly written, Cam is the weakest character in the film, and makes no sense in Sage’s life. He’s little more than a ham-fisted stereotype shoved into the film for mild comedic relief. While it is satisfying to watch Tomlin kick the crap out of the little shit, this hardly justifies his character. He’s simply not believable in the fabric of the film.
In an attempt to collect old debts, and sell some first editions that are in less than pristine condition, Tomlin reveals more of Elle’s character to both Sage and the audience. To call Elle charming feels a gross disservice: She’s magnetic. Tomlin has created an eclectic, mesmerizing woman with a passion that radiates through every scene. She balances misanthropic melancholy with empathetic sincerity beautifully, and produces a loving, and beloved character.
Garner’s Sage is charming, but unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to her potential. Previous roles such as 2013’s We Are What We Are had Garner in stunning form, stealing every scene with an emotional maturity that far surpassed her years of experience. Here, sadly, she feels a little out of her depth. Though beautiful to watch, and at times quite emotionally poignant, Garner doesn’t quite meet expectations.
Greer as Elle’s seemingly overbearing ex-girlfriend, Olivia, is fantastic as usual. She plays brilliantly off Tomlin’s power, matching her abilities in every way, and frequently stealing the scene. It is a shame the two weren’t given more screen time together. Harden, similarly, is a force to be reckoned with, who similarly plays beautifully against Tomlin. She presents us with a multifaceted mother figure, three dimensional and complex. A hard-working executive in a high-power, high-stress position, Harden breathes life into a character who is lovingly invested in her daughter’s wellbeing, while still conflicted about her own involvement. Though a hardliner who seems at times insensitive, Harden moulds Judy into more than just a stereotypical female executive.
What’s perhaps most important about Grandma is its representation of something that unfortunately still plagues women around the world. No matter your political leanings, religious beliefs, or family values, abortion is still a four-letter word, a needlessly ugly topic that most people shy away from. It’s uncommon to see someone actually carry out an abortion in film or television. Without outwardly expressing a clear agenda, there’s always an excuse not to do it. Even if the production isn’t overtly saying that abortion is bad, its omission creates a dialogue that it’s the wrong choice. This is unacceptable, and only further stigmatizes a sometimes very necessary procedure.
Grandma handles the difficult choice to abort a pregnancy with thoughtful compassion, and avoids stigmatization. Elle’s approach to the procedure is decidedly nonchalant, while Judy is more frustrated at her daughter’s irresponsibility for not using protection in the first place. It is present in the plot more as an obvious solution than a difficult decision; a decision made thoughtfully, but without an unnecessary abundance of guilt. This, above all else, makes Grandma a landmark film for representing women’s rights.
Grandma is thoughtful, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. Its representation of three drastically different generations of women at the same time is something to be proud of, as is the ensemble of extremely talented actresses. It is frank, honest, and fearless in its agenda. Grandma is a joy to watch.