Writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) may have a hit-and-miss track record, but when he hits, he sure makes it count, giving Lily Tomlin a terrific part for her first leading role in almost three decades, in what turns out to be a prickly, if slight, little dramedy.
Elle (Tomlin) is a lesbian poet attempting to deal with the recent passing of her partner of almost four decades. When her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep begging for money for an abortion, the two embark upon a road trip to secure the funds, as Elle hits up various debtors and friends for the cause.
Don’t mistake Grandma’s 79-minute run-time for something insubstantial that was botched in post-production; this is among 2015’s most lean and laser-trained films, flouting not an ounce of fat on its bones and kicking off its road trip mere minutes into the pic.
Abortion will always be a contentious cinematic topic, but credit to Weitz for mostly draining the controversy out of it by largely refusing to comment on or judge Sage’s behaviour (even if some of the movie’s characters might). The film refuses to get bogged down in the abortion debate but instead lays out its cards early, establishes the state of affairs and simply sets off on its path.
It’s still a tricky premise, but one that Weitz handles gracefully, focusing instead on Elle’s sense of loss and the bond she forms with her granddaughter. Naturally with Tomlin in the lead it’s anything but conventional, as she gets violent, drops F-bombs like her life depends on it and is generally obnoxious to anyone who doesn’t fully subscribe to her worldview, sometimes including Sage.
Tomlin reminds the world why she’s such an incredible talent, delivering a devastatingly funny, Oscar-worthy turn that peels back layers of hidden anguish over the film’s course. Even though Tomlin’s turn would pretty much be enough to sustain the entire project, she’s backed up by some terrific support; as co-lead, the lovely Garner earmarks herself as a rising star to watch, while Sam Elliott completely steals the movie during his brutal 10-minute cameo as one of Elle’s former lovers, Marcia Gay Harden is fantastic as Sage’s mother Judy, and Judy Greer is as reliably great as ever playing Elle’s most recent partner Olivia.
The film’s commitment to not pulling a Juno and “switching sides” on its premise will naturally turn more conservative viewers off, but for those undeterred by its open-minded politics, Grandma is an affecting, riotously funny comic drama that packs Tomlin’s superb performance among others into an insanely concise package.
Grandma is in cinemas now