Grandma, a film by Paul Weitz, stars Lily Tomlin as Elle Reed, a lesbian poet in her mid-70s whom we first meet as she unceremoniously dumps her much-younger girlfriend, cruelly telling her that the relationship didn’t mean anything. Elle is still grieving the death of her longtime partner Vivian, and the loss expresses itself in irritation and bouts of anger, along with a rather cynical sense of humor. Then her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage, played by Julia Garner, shows up at her doorstep, pregnant and seeking financial help so she can pay for an abortion. She’s afraid to tell her Mom, but since Grandma is apparently estranged from her daughter, she seems like a safe person to come to for help. Elle does try to help, although Sage finds her more abrasive than she had wished, but it turns out that Grandma is broke, so the rest of the movie concerns the quest to raise enough money for the procedure, which is scheduled for that afternoon.
Judging from the previews I had every reason to expect that Grandma would be one of those comedies where we laugh at a smart aleck older lady, and at the same time, we discover, she’s very wise. Luckily, the previews give an inaccurate impression of the movie as a whole. Sure, there are quirky characters and one-liners, a wistful little violin and piano score, and even Sam Elliott, who shows up to do his Sam Elliott thing. This is a not a major work, by any means. But Lily Tomlin inhabits the role of Elle with a sense of poise and comfort that makes everything else in the picture look good. She’s authentic through and through—nothing is overplayed, not the independence, not the crankiness, certainly not the grief. The script doesn’t make Grandma a figure of fun—she’s a formidable yet believable character, recognizably imperfect and unsentimental.
Paul Weitz, the director, made his name with the vulgar teen flick American Pie. Since then, as if to compensate, he’s been crafting modest, intelligent dramas and comedies. Grandma is admirably woman-centered too. Women characters interact a lot with other women characters, which should be a normal thing in the movies but unfortunately is not, so I need to praise it when it happens.
Another important, refreshing aspect of the film is that abortion is treated as a valid choice for a woman. It’s viewed seriously, but without any hand-wringing, debating, or melodrama. Thousands of women get abortions every year—which need I remind you, is legal—and yet how often do we see this choice made in movies? In this case, it’s not even a central theme. The real subject is long-term relationships, both family and romantic, and the journey from grief and loss to acceptance, as well as from resentment to forgiveness. It’s all done very lightly, though. Lily Tomlin is so good that she makes a big deal seem like not such a big deal.