Release: Friday, August 21, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Paul Weitz
Directed by: Paul Weitz
Grandma is a misleading title for a film dealing with taboos such as teen pregnancy and abortion. Presenting a thoroughly convincing conundrum in which a young girl turns to her unstable grandmother following a one-night stand that causes her to become pregnant, Paul Weitz’s latest deflects accusations of being just another political soap box movie with wonderful performances and a nonjudgmental tone.
I know what you’re thinking (other than the fact you can’t believe the guy who made American Pie came up with this one): this is one of those guilt-trip flicks, and it would be a good idea to have a position on the issue before watching. You wouldn’t be completely off-base by assuming this is a film with an agenda. After all, Weitz doesn’t really hide his feelings by using a teen as his subject. But Grandma is far less manipulative than you might (fairly) assume, maturing over the course of 80 short minutes into a heartfelt tale about motherly responsibility and the galvanizing power of familial love.
Lily Tomlin stars as the titular grandma, Elle Reid, a cantankerous sort who’s currently in a bit of a spat with her ex-girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) and having a difficult time financially. Clad in denim and dark clothes, her hair a perpetual mess, Elle is a somewhat obstinate older woman who can’t seem to get along with others. She’s not even particularly liked by other members of her family, though her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) is more level-headed and understanding than Elle’s own daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Sage approaches Elle because she believes she will be more willing (not necessarily more able, as the film will prove) to assist her. The pair set off on a quasi-adventure, scouting the area for people who’d be able to help them raise the $600 needed for the procedure. In the process the two become closer to one another.
Their mission is sort of time sensitive, as Sage makes an appointment the same day she asks Grandma for help. Nat Wolff plays the (not good) guy in question. He’s the first of many whom Elle and Sage seek out and, predictably, he refuses to chip in. So Elle righteously smacks him in the crotch with the handle of a hockey stick. (I don’t know if she was attempting to prevent him from making babies in the future, but it sure looked that way.) We move on down the road, coming across many of Elle’s old acquaintances and friends — a tattoo parlor owner named Deathy (nice, that’ll keep customers coming back); an employee working in a small restaurant where Elle’s ex used to work . . . although it turns out Elle was wrong about her employment status; and an old flame in the form of Sam Elliot’s Karl who sniffs out Elle’s ulterior motives quickly.
Grandma isn’t ambitious. Neither is its leading pair — whose age gap actually makes for an unusual and compelling dynamic. Merely seeking a way to solve Sage’s current crisis, they are people we can really get behind and root for, despite our feelings on the subject. With a story involving abortion, there’s no chance of it escaping the label of ‘controversial,’ ‘bold,’ or other similar, neutral descriptions. Tomlin’s highly entertaining performance makes for a well-rounded and fleshed-out Elle; young Garner impresses as the troubled teen, and though innocence radiates from her in contradictory fashion, that’s sort of the point. The situation having befallen her is more shocking than the decision she makes on her own.
At the same time, Weitz is really putting himself out there, tackling such hot button topics as abortion, sexuality and parenthood, the latter obviously being the least hot button of them all. The way he blends his themes together is ambitious. That he can infuse the drama with a decidedly heavier comedic touch is a plus. Grandma‘s breezy narrative traces the long-term effects that parenting can have, while offering incisive commentary on the different values each generation seems to adopt and discard accordingly. You may not agree with the characters’ decisions but it might be easier to agree that Sage’s grandma is pretty awesome.
Recommendation: A slight production, Grandma could have been a prickly little pear but thanks to heartwarming performances and a genuine understanding of the importance of family it is hardly confrontational. I actually find it to be one of the better non-family-oriented family films of recent times (if that makes any sense at all — basically, don’t take the kids to this one). I’m a newcomer when it comes to Lily Tomlin but I have found one of the year’s greatest performances. Tomlin really makes this movie.
Running Time: 82 mins.
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