Review: Grandma

Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner in Grandma

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as Elle. The entire story takes place in one day. It starts when Elle breaks up with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). Then Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) unexpectedly shows up needing $600 before sundown.

Spoilers ahead.

Elle is temporarily broke. She and Sage spend the day trying to get their hands on the cash. Their unannounced visits to Elle’s old friends and flames end up rattling skeletons and digging up secrets that surprise Sage.

The film bears many earmarks of a low-budget indie, yet it flashes gold in a superb cast and slowly developing character revelations. It’s Lily Tomlin’s movie from start to finish, but Julia Garner as Sage turns in an excellent performance as well.

Sage needs the money for an abortion. Elle questions her carefully about the decision she’s making, telling her that she will think about it at least once every day for the rest of her life.

The two do everything possible to avoid asking Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) for the money. Judy terrifies both her mother and her child.

The film bears many earmarks of a low-budget indie, yet it flashes gold in a superb cast and slowly developing character revelations.They first visit Cam, (Nat Wolff) the baby’s father. He’s a jerk. Elle bashes him in the genitals with a hockey stick before taking every cent he has, about $60. The hockey stick incident is a good indicator of Elle’s combative personality. She’s mad at everyone.

Elle is grieving over the loss of her partner of 38 years, Vi. That’s really why she kicked out her new and much younger girlfriend, and that’s really why she starts world war III with just about everyone she meets.

They go see Deathy (Laverne Cox) a tattoo artist who owes Elle $400. Deathy comes up with another $60 or so.

Elle remembers her friend Carla (Elizabeth Peña) wanted to buy some feminist first editions from her years ago. They grab books and head for Carla. The conversation between grandmother and granddaughter over Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique is very funny.

When they arrive at Carla’s coffee shop, Olivia, the recent ex-girlfriend, is working there. Carla thinks $60 is a fair price for the first editions which leaves Elle livid. Elle storms off.

Olivia follows Elle out into the street where they have a shouting match.

Elle goes to see Karl (Sam Elliott), who has the $500 they still need, but won’t hand it over without a kiss from Elle. He wants sex, too, but she won’t deliver. She tells him to go fuck himself. They have an argument. Sage listens to them fight in wide-eyed amazement. It turns out Elle and Karl were married once, 50 years ago. When he finds out the money is for an abortion, he won’t let them have it. Elle had an abortion he didn’t learn about until after they were divorced. He’s still furious.

When they leave Karl’s house, Sage asks her Grandma if she used to like men. Elle says, “No, I always liked women. I just hated myself.”

Lily Tomlin drove her own personal car in this film, a 1955 Dodge Royal.
Lily Tomlin drove her own car in this film, a 1955 Dodge Royal.

There’s no one left to hit up for cash but the terrifying Judy. Judy gives them the money and Elle and Sage race to the clinic in Elle’s broken down car. Judy shows up at the clinic where she and her mom have a semblance of a conversation for the first time in years. Sage goes home with her mother after the procedure and the two of them have a semblance of a conversation as well. A hopeful outcome for the three feuding generations in the story.

The day is a revelation for both Elle and Sage. Sage sees her grandma in a new light. Judy reveals how much she misses Vi, who was her second parent, and did most of the mothering while Elle worked. Judy and Elle both are suffering their loss of Vi badly. Elle hadn’t thought about Judy’s grief before this crisis took her out of her own pain.

Elle tries to make up for some of her bristly behavior by stopping by Olivia’s house on her way home to apologize. Their exchange was one of the sweetest moments in the film. The film ends with Elle walking away from Olivia’s house with that loose-limbed walk of hers as twilight falls on the long and eventful day.

I loved the cast. Truly outstanding players. However, I’ve always had a particular affection for Elizabeth Peña. She didn’t look well in this; she was near the end of her life and passed away in October 2014 at age 55. A sad loss.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz with Lily Tomlin in mind from the beginning. Watch the trailer.

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