I’ve already made my peace with the fact that I’m not getting around to everything. The demands of my offline life aside, there are simply too many well-reputed films and/or awards contenders that are in theaters right now and coming out in the next few weeks. Which ones I review will come down to timing and luck of the draw. Though it helps to be a lesser-known film that deserves a bit more good buzz, which brings us to today’s picture.
Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as the titular Elle Reid. She’s a published poet, a college professor, and a lesbian whose partner of 30-odd years passed away some time ago. I should also add that she’s old and depressed, with a hair-trigger temper and a diabolical wit.
Our story begins with Elle’s granddaughter (Sage, played by Julia Garner), who foolishly got herself knocked up. She’s made an appointment to get an abortion, but her idiot kinda-boyfriend couldn’t keep his promise to find the money for the procedure. So now it’s the day of the appointment and Sage has gone to her grandma for help getting the funds. Except that Elle has cleared out all her debts and destroyed her credit cards in some misguided attempt at starting over.
Which means that the both of them are stuck trying to come up with $600 in seven hours. What follows is an episodic kind of plot, as Elle goes to visit friends, acquaintances, and anyone else she can possibly squeeze some money out of, all while bringing Sage along for the ride. Hilarity ensues.
Just to get this out of the way, there’s no getting around the fact that this premise centers around an abortion. So obviously, that touchy debate is going to come up. There is a brief scene with protesters, the emotional ramifications are clearly dealt with, and the film shows an obvious pro-choice bent. All of that said, however, the film very artfully sidesteps the thornier aspects of abortion by framing the issue within the film’s more prominent themes. It’s done in such a way that even though the movie may prominently feature an abortion, it’s not necessarily a movie about abortion.
Instead, this really is a movie about parents and children. It’s about the obligations they have to each other, it’s about how they hold each other up, it’s about how they tear each other down and drive each other insane. Moreover, it bears remembering that Elle gave birth after a drunken one-night-stand and raised her daughter with her lesbian partner, while Sage was also borne of an anonymous sperm donor. This family is so dysfunctional and so far removed from the “conventional nuclear family” that implicitly, the film serves as a commentary about our changing definitions of what family is.
Far more importantly, this is a movie about regret. It’s about emotional baggage. It’s about all those grievances and doubts that pile up bit by little bit over the years. And no matter how many decades pass, some of those pains never really go away — they just sit there like a pebble in your sock, aching with every step you take while you pretend it isn’t there.
As the narrative continues and Elle has to deal with her past debts, we get to witness the traumas and heartbreaks that have made Elle such a bitter and disillusioned bitch over the years. Sometimes she tries to make amends for pains that she’s caused, and other times she doesn’t have the option, though mostly Elle flies off the handle and alienates people even further.
This comes back to Sage and her abortion in a big way, as the one little mistake of getting impregnated by a hopeless loser may that first bit of serious emotional baggage. Regardless of whether Sage aborts, keeps, or gives up the child, this will be something that she carries with her for the rest of her life. It will be something that she looks back on. But the mistake has been made, and Sage has an obligation to do what’s best for herself in the moment. And Elle has an obligation to help Sage make that choice in a way that causes the least trauma further down the line.
Despite all of this talk about drama, I have to stress that there is a lot of comedy here. Most of it stems from Elle going off on some invective tirade while Sage acts as our straight woman. It certainly helps that there’s no shortage of talent in the cast. Lily Tomlin of course needs no introduction as an acerbic comedienne, but she’s acting off of such capable talents as Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, John Cho, Laverne Cox, and Sam Elliott. She also gets to beat the crap out of Nat Wolff, which was a lot of fun to watch. Julia Garner proves herself to be a delightful young up-and-comer as well.
Regarding the complaints, I have to say that I was not a fan of the visuals. Pretty much the entire movie was shot on handheld camera, which didn’t go very well. The filmmakers were obviously trying to go for an immersive “cinema verite” feel, which was absolutely essential for this movie to work. Alas, the camera called attention to itself by swaying too much, and the approach backfired terribly. Moreover, so many of the shots were done in close-up that the editing constantly had to switch from one character to another in a very jarring way.
Then there’s the running time. At 79 minutes, it’s hard to even call this a feature-length film. Far be it from me to complain about a movie that speeds along at a good clip (until the interminable last shot, anyway), but I would have been perfectly willing to spend another ten minutes with these characters. And it’s not like the filmmakers couldn’t have thought up one more place where Elle and Sage could go to try and find some money.
The highest compliment I can give to Grandma is that I left the theater feeling like I had just met someone, and that’s really all I ask from an intimate character drama like this. The film is a sweet little slice-of-life dramedy that deals with some heavy subject matter in a sincere and light-hearted way, addressing the more weighty aspects respectfully and without any condescension. The cast is wonderful across the board, which helps to keep the characters nuanced even as we laugh at their expense.
Even so, I can’t bring myself to recommend paying full price for a movie that barely clocks in at over an hour. But if you can find this on Netflix or whatever, definitely give it a look.