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The trailers for Grandma make it seem as if Lily Tomlin spends the entirety of Paul Weitz’s film cursing sarcastically while slipping on banana peels. Audiences drawn to that, though, will be disappointed to discover that Grandma is more smart than wacky, more gut-wrenching than belly-busting. It’s About a Girl—though, yes, Grandma’s reaction to the girl is what’s most scrutinized.
Elle (Tomlin) has just gone through a nasty breakup with her much younger girlfriend of four months (Judy Greer) when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door. Sage—who looks like a teen Shirley Temple with her porcelain skin, angelic face, and tight blond curls—is pregnant and needs $600 for an abortion. Approaching her high-strung, critical mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is not an option.
Because Elle had cut up her credit cards in an anti-capitalist fit, they set out on a daylong road trip to beg and borrow. You must pretend that she can’t get replacement cards, and that Sage can’t reschedule her appointment to wait for one to show up. Elle’s determined to help Sage, even if it means contacting acquaintances from many moons ago who may hold some grudges.
Weitz, who also wrote the script, inarguably fashioned a pro-choice story, with the exception of one reasonable naysayer and two cartoonish, outside-the-clinic protesters.
Elle’s a walking grudge herself, but as the pair entreat one person after another, it’s clear there’s oceans of hurt flowing through her life story. One of the best, most nuanced scenes in the film involves a former flame (Sam Elliott). Their history trickles out in polite chatter until Elle’s request detonates the subsurface tension. There’s a reason why Grandma’s so single-minded.
You may find yourself agreeing with Sage when she tells Elle barely 15 minutes in, “You’re getting on my nerves right now,” but Weitz soon allows Tomlin to rein in her David O. Russell fury and be a person instead of a rap-listening, tat-sporting, “fuck”-spewing caricature. Tomlin flips the switch naturally, even when her girlfriend walks out—you know her cruelty is not in her heart but her armor. (And if you’re going to present a badass grandmother, let your actress do it naturally, as opposed to the ridiculous gray wig Susan Sarandon had to endure in Tammy. Tomlin, wearing a jean jacket and Elle’s thoughts on her sleeve, makes this character feel genuine.)
Garner doesn’t have much to do besides look sweet and scared; the 21-year-old is almost too childlike for Sage to seem knocked up. But it’s the elders who are running the show: Tomlin, obviously, drives the film, but she steps aside to let Elliott and Harden shine in some highly charged moments.
Notably, this is the first high-profile film role for Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, a transgender woman who’s won accolades for her work in the Netflix series. Although her character is a minor one, her casting speaks to the the film’s inclusivity, from Elle’s sexuality to talk of nontraditional ways of getting pregnant to Sage’s whole quandary and the belief that her decision is not only her decision, but an informed one. Then there’s the small detail that this is a female-led cast. The fact seems so unexceptional—audiences will find themselves drawn to compelling characters and performances, male or female—I almost forgot.
Grandma opens Friday at Angelika Film Center, Bethesda Row, and E Street Cinema.