An Outstanding Vehicle for Tomlin

(USA, 78 min.)
Written and directed by Paul Weitz
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliot
Lily Tomlin as Elle.
Photo: Aaron Epstein, courtesy SPC/Mongrel

Grandma is an outstanding star vehicle for Lily Tomlin. The 76-year-old comedienne gives one of the best performances of her career in Grandma playing a sassy granny. As 78-year-old Elle, a widowed lesbian who helps her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) collect funds for an abortion for an unexpected pregnancy, Tomlin channels the tricky road of motherhood as Elle revisits ghosts of the past and confronts the many women in her life. She is vibrant, out, and funny in Grandma, and she’s confidently in driver’s seat of this indie road movie. Tomlin’s performance in Grandma gives audiences everything they could hope to find in character study.

Tomlin makes Grandma worth the trip, as this comedy by Paul Weitz (Admission) takes considerable detours and pit stops along the way to the abortion clinic as Elle scrounges up change and rattles skeletons in the closet. Some vignettes work and some of them simply don’t, but Grandma’s hits mostly outweigh its misses thanks to the confidence of its star and key members of the supporting cast. The film plays out in a series of chapters marked by themes and images from Elle’s collection of poetry for which she’s a famed (if faded) feminist poet. The first of the secondary figures, and the only one to appear more than once, is her new girlfriend Oliva (a terrific Judy Greer, who gives one of her better performances), whom she cruelly dumps and calls “a footnote” to her love life of which a thirty-eight year romance with her late partner Violet is the main text. As Elle sobs in the shower following their split, Tomlin makes a cruel woman instantly sympathetic as she creates a woman too cautious to risk falling in love again.

When Sage arrives, the first stops on the road to collecting the 600 bucks she needs for the abortion are the weakest. A rest at a hipster coffee bar that used to be a free women’s clinic brings out the curmudgeon in Elle as she rants about changing times to the barista (John Cho), while a visit to the other participant in Sage’s pregnancy (Nat Wolff) lets Elle channel her sitcom side as grandma trades blows with a burnout teenager. These scenes are ranty and wayward asides; they’re tonally uneven and an unfair prelude to better drama and comedy that arises as Grandma evolves along the way.

Far better is a visit to Karl (Sam Elliot), an old flame of Elle’s pre-out days to whom she turns when their search for money gets serious. This great chapter of the film brings Elle, gussied up with lipstick, along with Sage to Karl’s swanky home where she learns of his string of marriages that produced a healthy crop of kids and grandkids. This meeting comes thirty years after Elle last saw Karl, so it naturally brings up many emotions for both of them, and Tomlin and Elliot convey the full spectrum of love in all its beauty, sweetness, and pain. The scene reveals how some wounds never heal. The conviction and hurt that both actors convey (especially Elliot here) reveals the complicated path on which Sage and Elle tread. It’s not a subject to take lightly, and both Tomlin and Elliot give some of the best work of their career in this single delicately layered sequence.

Grandma handles serious subject matter delicately when it isn’t aiming for broad laughs. Like last year’s indie comedy Obvious Child, the film takes an abortion as a catalyst for a larger story about women’s issues. The film charts a decidedly feminist road movie and coming of age film as the wisdom and experience of Elle’s journey nurtures Sage and pushes her to repair her relationship with her own mother (Marcia Gay Harden, jittery with caffeine and gusto), who is herself estranged from Elle. Elle learns to put her own life in perspective as the women she encounters along the trip frame her concept of feminism from an academic one to practical one.

Tomlin and Garner have fine chemistry as two generations of women teaching one another concepts both new and old as Grandma brings both women where they need to go. Some scenes might read like broad, obvious vignettes one expects to see in a first feature, but the actors, especially Tomlin, make Grandma warmly and richly memorable, and Weitz's simply refreshing style lets the strength of the performances drive the film. Grandma offers the wisdom of experience and the energy of youth as Tomlin reveals a fuller side of herself that we haven’t seen before.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Grandma screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Oct. 15
And at The Mayfair beginning Oct. 16.