The temptation to soften “Grandma,” to sentimentalize her character or sweeten her encounters with people she has cast aside over a long life, must have been almost irresistible. Luckily, writer-director Paul Weitz resisted it.
We leave it with the sense life could get better for Elle, played by Lily Tomlin in bluntly honest fashion, as she faces the second half of her 70s. But some emotional wounds can’t be healed completely – they only scab over and reopen, if they’re picked at – and her path through one tempestuous day leads her in unexpected and painful directions.
The morning begins with Elle rudely casting aside Olivia, her much younger lover of the last four months (Judy Greer). Then Sage, Elle’s teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner), shows up requesting $630 for an abortion. Elle has just emptied her bank account to get out of debt and cut up her last credit card, so they set out to find the money among her old friends and old flames.
You’re going to have to overlook some parts of the plot to enjoy the film: an antique car that breaks down at a crucial time, the likelihood that neither Elle nor Sage would have a credit card or access to even a few hundred dollars in savings, the fact that Sage waits until nine hours before she’s due at the abortion clinic to approach Elle.
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But I think you’ll let those pass, as you watch Tomlin explore a deep well of rage and resentment. She’s upset with herself for abandoning her poetry, with the partner who died after three decades and left her alone, and with the daughter both she and Sage are afraid to approach with a sensitive issue. They do approach her, of course. She turns out to be an overworked but not unsympathetic attorney (Marcia Gay Harden), who has carried Elle’s hard-nosed attitude forward one generation.
Weitz cast familiar actors in small roles: Sam Elliott as a rich man with a justifiable grudge against Elle, Elizabeth Peña as a café owner, John Cho as the manager of a coffee store where Elle melts down, Laverne Cox as a tattoo artist, Nat Wolff as Sage’s irritating boyfriend. They make one appearance each, giving the wry Tomlin and winsomely endearing Garner support or opposition.
Some filmgoers might be put off by Weitz’s attitude toward abortion and lesbianism. The script portrays a first-trimester abortion as a reasonable procedure for a woman who doesn’t want a baby – at least at that point – and can’t support one. It treats lesbianism as something so ordinary that no one in Elle’s life seems surprised or put off by it; everyone speaks of the late Violet, her long-term partner, with affection. (Sage’s mother calls her “Mama Vi.”)
Elle is shocked to learn she can’t raise the money by selling first editions of treasured 1970s manifestos – “The Female Eunuch,” “The Feminine Mystique” – because there’s no demand. What seemed startling to her when she read them 40 years ago now seems like common sense that can be taken for granted.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden.
Writer-director: Paul Weitz.
Length: 80 minutes.
Rating: R (for language and some drug use).