Roger Ebert called movies “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,” and the best ones allow you to live another person’s life for a few hours. Paul Weitz’s new film Grandma allows the audience to see a controversial subject from a different perspective. Weitz, whose previous films include About a Boy and In Good Company, seemingly wrote and directed Grandma with empathy in mind. While writing, he might have also had the second wave feminism slogan, “The personal is political,” taped to his wall. Weitz puts a very human face on some very big political issues, and he does it with grace and frankness.
Sage (Julia Garner) is a teen in trouble. She’s pregnant, and her acerbic grandma Elle (Lily Tomlin) is the only person she feels comfortable turning to for help. Sage doesn’t have the 600 dollars she needs for an abortion, so she asks grandma Elle for the money. Elle is having some issues of her own, namely a break-up with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), that happens just minutes before Sage shows up. Elle tells Olivia that the few months they were together amount to a footnote in her life, compared to the decades she spent with her recently deceased partner, Violet. This breakup opens the film, and it grounds the rest of Grandma in a realism that gives way to delightful comedy throughout. After Olivia walks out in tears, Sage shows up and confides to her grandma why she needs the cash. Elle is forced to admit that she doesn’t have the money either. The two women set out to beg and borrow for enough cash to pay for Sage’s procedure, which is scheduled for five o’clock that afternoon.
The real strength of Grandma is its refusal to moralize. This is life. Sometimes women need an abortion, and Weitz doesn’t waste time trying to convince the audience that’s okay. Instead, he constructs characters that feel very real, and he puts them in circumstances that show (rather than tell) why a perfectly legal medical procedure can be next to impossible to obtain for women with no financial means. The director also wisely refrains from having his characters deliver big speeches. Instead, he provides scenes like the one where the granddaughter tells her grandmother that she would like to have children someday, but she’s mature enough to know that now is not the right time. She isn’t in a place in her life to support a baby, so ending the pregnancy is the most responsible thing she can do.
But the movie isn’t completely one-sided. The writer/director complicates matters by going beyond the simple pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy. In desperation, Elle ignores her better judgement and contacts a man she married a half century ago, allowing the movie to deftly address why LGBT people deny their true selves in an intolerant society. She asks her old flame, Karl (Sam Elliott), for the money, but she refuses to say why she needs it. The truth eventually comes out and Karl refuses to help, but not simply because he is pro-life. In an emotionally wrenching scene, Karl reminds Elle how decisions from the distant past can poison people for decades. Sam Elliott gives a supporting performance worthy of an Oscar, portraying Karl with a deep well of hurt.
Elliott’s excellent performance is one of many on display in Grandma. Lily Tomlin – who hasn’t had a leading role in a film since 1988’s Big Business – shines in the role of Grandma Elle. Tomlin delivers in a way only someone with such vast life experience could. Her unique and expressive face gives subtle shading to the sarcasm, wit, and tempered ferocity of Elle. It’s a performance that career resurgences are built on. Julia Garner gets to the heart of Sage. She makes the character exactly what it needs to be –a confused, bright girl who desperately wants to do the right thing. The movie is rounded out with a series of cameos from the likes of John Cho, Laverne Cox, the late Elizabeth Peña (in one of her last film roles), and Colleen Camp in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role that brings the movie its levity.
The weakest link in the cast is Marcia Gay Harden, who goes way over the top as Judy, Sage’s strict, career-driven mother. The movie derails a bit when we’re introduced to Judy, a no-nonsense business woman who has a treadmill attached to her desk so she can exercise while she works. The cans of Red Bull that Judy has on her desk are too clever by half, ensuring the audience gets what type of character Judy is in no uncertain terms. In fact, Harden’s performance turns Judy into just that –a type, and it thwarts the feel of the rest of the movie. Cinematographer Tobias Datum unfortunately uses an overactive handheld camera that’s starting to feel a bit cliché for a small budget indie film. These are small blemishes in a film that otherwise feels just right. Weitz created a world and characters that feel very authentic, thanks in no small part to the outstanding performances.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Lily Tomlin’s performance (along with almost every other performance) is not to be missed.
- Weitz’s writing and direction create a movie that is warm and authentic. His characters feel like they could exist beyond the screen.
- Although there are some rough edges (like Hardin’s character), as a whole, Grandma is solid in its construction and execution.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The movie doesn’t overstay its welcome. At just 79 minutes, Grandma is lean, and Weitz was very focused on what he wanted to accomplish with his movie.
- There’s a bit of comedy towards the end with a woman and her daughter protesting outside of the abortion clinic. It doesn’t quite work; it feels a bit too broad to fit with the rest of the movie.