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Grandma

D: Paul Weitz / 78m

Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Wolff, Lauren Tom

Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a once well-known poet. She’s also a lesbian whose long-term partner has recently passed away. She has a daughter, Judy (Harden), she isn’t on very good terms with. She’s grouchy, antagonistic and caustic as the mood takes her. She’s also just shown the door – horribly – to Olivia (Greer) whom she’s been in a relationship with for four months. And now she’s visited by her granddaughter Sage (Garner) who’s pregnant and needs $630 for an abortion by five forty-five that evening. No wonder she’s so unapologetically cranky.

Elle has another reason to be in a bad mood: thanks to an attack of principles she’s cut up her credit card and used it as a wind chime, so she can’t give Sage the money she needs. To make up for this selfish crime against modern day living, Elle agrees to help Sage find the money from other sources. First they visit Sage’s boyfriend, Cam (Wolff), where his aggressive and disrespectful attitude to Elle leads to some unexpected violence and the accrual of $50. From there they try to call in a loan from one of Elle’s friends, Deathy (Cox), but that only nets $65. When Elle next tries to sell some of her first edition books (even though they’re not in the best of condition), that plan backfires when Olivia appears on the scene and an argument ensues. With time running out, Elle decides she has to take a risk and visit an old flame, Karl (Elliott). At first Karl seems amenable to lending Elle the remaining $515 but their shared history ruins things and he refuses. This leaves Elle and Sage with only one remaining option: they have to see Judy and ask for her help, even though she and Elle are effectively estranged and she has no idea that Sage is pregnant (Elle also tells Sage that she’s afraid of Judy and has been since she was five).

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It should take the viewer roughly two minutes of Grandma‘s running time to see why Lily Tomlin signed up to play Elle. In keeping with her literary background, and doing her best to end her relationship with Olivia as quickly as possible, Elle refers to her as “a footnote”. It’s an unnecessarily cruel remark, and Tomlin delivers it casually, as if it were of no more significance than if Elle had called Olivia a terrible lay, or a boring conversationalist. And from that nasty remark, and Elle’s adamant refusal to apologise, the viewer can see that spending time with Elle is going to be made all the more enjoyable thanks to Tomlin’s acid dry performance. Yes, she’s unconscionably horrid at times, and yes she does her best to belittle the people she despises (which seems to be everyone outside of Sage and Deathy), but it’s Elle’s acerbic, take-no-prisoners attitude that is so ironically appealing, and Tomlin knows this. And knowing this she grabs the role in both hands and has a high old time with it.

But Tomlin’s performance isn’t the whole movie, and thanks to Weitz’s command of his own script, Elle isn’t allowed to overwhelm the other characters, and she doesn’t get all the best moments. And it’s not just about one woman’s misanthropic attitude to the world around her, but the ruptured family dynamics that keep her alone following the death of her partner, and how her being needed leads to a reconciliation that everyone is a part of. This gives the movie the heart it needs to balance Elle’s angry behaviour, and leavens the nihilism she seems to revel in. Without it, Grandma would still be funny, absorbing even, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as rewarding.

Weitz is back on form after a string of less than fully realised movies – Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009) and Little Fockers (2010) to name but two – and he creates a sympathetic storyline to hang his characters from, as well as making each encounter on the road to Judy’s office as grounded and credible as possible while also indulging Elle’s astringent nature. The outcome of the trip to see Karl is a particular highlight, adding a layer of unexpected poignancy to a situation that some viewers might not see coming until it’s there. It also gives Elliott the chance to show just how good an actor he is, and if Grandma has no other impact than to open the doors for Elliott to give further, equally moving performances then his appearance here will have been entirely worth it.

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By carefully balancing the inherent pathos and humour of Sage’s “situation”, Weitz also gets to poke fun at the American public’s antipathy to hearing the emotive word “abortion”. Elle and Sage are ejected from a coffee shop (that used to be a free clinic) thanks to Elle bemoaning out loud the clinic’s passing – “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?” The word is used liberally throughout, and as an accurate description of the procedure Sage needs to have it’s entirely in context, but Weitz refuses to sugar coat the situation, and it’s to the movie’s credit that when Elle and Sage do encounter a pro-lifer (and her young daughter), their position isn’t criticised or lampooned, but instead is used to provide one of the movie’s best laughs.

With Weitz so assured in the handling of the material, his cast are free to provide fully rounded characters that you can empathise with and support (except for Cam, naturally). Tomlin, as mentioned before, is on superb form, and is ably supported by Garner who gives Sage a wistful nature that makes it seem as if she’s always working things out in her head, but is just a little bit too slow in doing so (“Screw you”). Harden pitches up in the final third and does sterling work as the mother who can’t quite work out why her daughter is afraid to tell her she’s pregnant when she has such a distant relationship with her own mother. Greer has a handful of scenes as the jilted Olivia and displays the character’s dismay and pain at being rejected with aplomb, her need to know the real reason for her dismissal a necessary challenge to Elle’s self-centred arrogance.

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Grandma is a movie that it would be easy to overlook, sounding as it does like an indie chick-flick for the generationally unbiased. That it’s profoundly moving in places, riotously funny in others, and completely charming all the way through is more than enough to recommend it. It’s short, sweet, avoids a lot of the clichés associated with the subject of abortion, features a cast who are behind Weitz all the way, and is just plain terrific.

Rating: 9/10 – one of the smarter, funnier, more enjoyable comedies of 2015, Grandma is a small-scale joy that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible; and let’s say it again, and louder this time: “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?”

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