Grandma (2015)

grandma_2015_poster
Grandma (2015)
  • Time: 82 min
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Paul Weitz
  • Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden

Storyline:

Self-described misanthrope Elle Reid has her protective bubble burst when her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage, shows up needing help. The two of them go on a day-long journey that causes Elle to come to terms with her past and Sage to confront her future.

3 reviews

  • (Rating: ☆☆☆ out of 4)

    This film is recommended.

    In brief: A road trip that gains a moviegoer’s admiration per mile.

    GRADE: B

    Perhaps the movie’s tagline should have read: “Abortion can bring a family closer together.” The pro-lifers may not like the film’s underlying message, but any serious moviegoer will certainly admire Paul Weitz’s low-budget independent film, Grandma. The film explores the fractured relationship between two distinct personalities and their generational gap that begins to close as they learn more life lessons from each other.

    Estranged from her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden), Sage (Julia Garner), a distraught pregnant woman seeks out her lesbian grandmother, Elle (Lily Tomlin), for help and some financial assistance. Newly separated from her lover, Olivia (Judy Greer), this title character goes on a road trip with her granddaughter. In the course of the day’s events, Elle learns to examine the consequences of choices made in her own life, while giving Sage some sage advice at every detour. The film follows these two misfits as they try to raise enough funds while gaining more self-awareness per mile. We go along for the ride and develop a fondness for these characters and their dilemmas.

    Ms. Tomlin has played this free-spirited New Age hipster before, most recently in her Emmy-nominated performance of Netflix’s comedy, Grace and Frankie. She knows this type of kooky liberal character inside out. But here, she brings a layered emotional vulnerability to her role. Toning down the comedic elements and emphasizing the dramatics, the part is a perfect blending for her own screen persona in the film’s story of a woman unable to fully enjoy her life.

    Yes, there is a lot of turmoil and dysfunction in this family dynamics and some of it is laid on rather thick. Old secrets and past lies come bubbly forth as Sage and Ellie begin to connect and see each other in a different light. Writer/director Weitz has made a literate and touching screenplay filled with interesting characters and he has shrewdly cast his film with a wonderful ensemble of actors that elevate the film to a higher level of excellence. The aforementioned Ms. Tomlin is wonderful and her driving companion Ms. Garner delivers a fine, if a tad subdued, performance. Giving strong support are Ms. Harden, Ms. Greer, and in smaller but pivotal roles, Laverne Cox, the late Elizabeth Peña, and Sam Elliott as Elle’s former boyfriend, Karl. Elliott is particularly strong in a tender and memorable scene between him and his ex-lover that could lead to some award nominations.

    The film is an engrossing character study that relies on its words rather than actions to tell its story. The plot is rather thin and its odyssey quite predictable. However, Grandma boasts top notch performances in its tale of discovery and revelation. Moviegoers should enjoy their journey every stop along the way too.

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  • The total is more than the sum of its parts. That applies to this movie. If you’d never seen a movie this one would look pretty good. Unfortunately, that is an extremely small demographic so I have to look at this for the rest of us. It is entertaining but there’s nothing terribly original about it and the actors pretty much play what they have played before.
    Writer Paul Weitz has certainly used the strong suits of the actors in telling this story. The actual plot doesn’t mean much because the characters are what the movie is about. There are no twists or turns and everything plays out as expected. If you like these characters, and I did, you will enjoy the movie. The plot, however, is a tad preposterous in this day and age. They try to explain it but sometimes it’s too little too late or, worse, an explanation from the 1970s rather than today. As a director Weitz needs some work. Technically this movie is amateurish. Literally shaking camera work, movie equipment fleetingly glimpsed, and the blocking and camera sometimes give us no idea who we’re supposed to be watching. Most of this could be solved with an observant eye and a tripod. He doesn’t, however, ask anything from his cast other than what they have given us before and there’s no equipment to fix that.
    Julia Garner plays Sage, a young lady, I’m a assuming college student but the dialog confused me, who is pregnant. A white, upper middle class female has many options available to her these days. It’s not that she can’t be overwhelmed by the event but there are still so many options out there that I found this part of the plot hard to accept and not well explained. Garner does a nice if somewhat nebulous job and never reaches the emotional levels I would think the situation demands.
    Marcia Gay Harden play Judy, Sage’s workaholic mother. Here is an actor who will give you a great performance if you ask her but for this movie she only has to do what we’ve seen before. She does it well but it’s not breaking any new ground.
    Finally, there’s Lily Tomlin playing, Elle, Sage’s grandmother and Judy’s mother. What I love about Tomlin’s acting is you never know when she’ll throw a look or grumble or say or do something that gets a laugh and most of the laughs in this movie are hers. Tomlin doesn’t break any new ground either but she’s still fun to watch.
    Keep an eye out for supporting characters played by Judy Greer, Elizabeth Pena (Possibly her last performance.), John Cho, Sam Elliott, and Nat Wolff.
    I give this movie 2 cool cars out of 4. The story needed punching up and the director needed to pay more attention to everything.

  • Grandma may be a custom-made vehicle for the indomitable Lily Tomlin, but it is the effortlessly sexy and heartbreaking Sam Elliott who steals the show. If writer-director Paul Weitz, who previously cast Tomlin in a supporting role in his 2013 campus comedy Admission, was inspired to make Grandma as a means of spending quality time with Tomlin, then he – or any other filmmaker, for that matter – would be well-advised to craft such a showcase for the criminally underrated Elliott.

    Tomlin and Elliott’s scenes together are the undisputed heart and soul of Grandma, but they comprise but a small portion of this film, which combines a road movie with a family film with a grumpy old woman dramedy with a lesbian, feminist and abortion story. That’s a lot to pack into an 80-minute film and, while Weitz manages to thread all these elements with varying degrees of success, he handles his material with a great deal of care, intelligence, and honesty.

    Grandma begins with an ending – specifically Elle (Tomlin) and Olivia’s (Judy Greer) break-up, but also the still-fresh traces of Violet’s demise 18 months earlier. A once-celebrated poet (though Elle describes herself as “marginally well-known 40 years ago”) now reduced to the academic beat, Elle is still mourning the loss of her 38-year partner Violet. Her four-month relationship with the much younger Olivia can’t even begin to compare. “You’re a footnote,” she dismissively tells Olivia, who is understandably pained by this treatment.

    The plot kicks in when, as Elle is sifting through her memories, her granddaughter Sage (a winsome Julia Garner) comes knocking on her door. She’s pregnant, she shares with Elle, and she needs $630 to pay for an abortion that she’s scheduled for later that same day. She has no money since her overbearing mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) confiscated her credit card, and there’s no way she would even dare ask Judy for help. Elle doesn’t have any cash on hand and credit cards are out of the question – after paying off all her debt, she cut them up into little pieces and turn them into a wind chime. “I’m transmogrifying my life into art,” she declares to her stunned granddaughter.

    Elle may not have the immediate means, but she has some other ideas on how to get the cash and so she and Julia drive around Los Angeles in Violet’s vintage Dodge Royal in the hopes of raising the money. The all-day odyssey allows for some diverting detours – a dust-up in a gourmet coffee shop which was formerly a free women’s clinic; an encounter with Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend (Nat Wolff) that ends with him being hit by his own hockey stick; a hipster cafe where Elle predictably chafes at Olivia’s unexpected presence; and a tattoo parlor run by an old friend Debbie (Laverne Cox).

    For a time, Grandma meanders in and out of these random but narratively relevant interludes which, had Tomlin been absent, would have been revealed for their inherently trite nature. They do assume a cumulative power, but Grandma elevates to a completely different stratosphere upon the appearance of Elliott’s Karl, a man who has accrued at least four ex-wives and countless kids and grandkids in the thirty years since he and Elle last set eyes upon one another. He has the cash they need, but Elle needs to navigate through a minefield of old hurts in her appeal for his assistance. Elliott has about ten minutes of screen time, but he unearths the fragility beneath the flint. It’s one of his best performances, perhaps even the best of his career.

    Grandma never quite recovers from their emotionally powerful reunion, but it does ably continue on its path in its exploration of three generations of womanhood and motherhood, and the choices that define their lives for good or ill. Elle “always liked women, I just didn’t like myself” but her the consequences of her early confusion still reverberate in the present. Her daughter Judy, following her mother’s independent lead, had Sage via an anonymous sperm donor. Now Sage must make her choice and live with it not just in the now, but in the years to come.

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