What an odd prospect this film is. Indie stalwart Lily Tomlin’s prickly grandmother with a heart of gold Elle sets out to help her granddaughter (Julia Garner) find the money to pay for an abortion, encountering faces from her past and battling her memories of ex-partner Violet. Yep, she’s a 70-something lesbian too! Just about any synopsis makes the film sound either deliberately shocking or sickeningly sentimental, so it’s no wonder I was one of only ten people in the audience at the screening I attended. But it’s a shame because Grandma turns out to be something of a treat – a film more interested in quirky but believable characters and the relationships between them than the taboo (at least in America) subject that sparks the whole venture.
For a while now Tomlin has been on the fringes of awards talk for this role, and her performance is certainly a good example of balancing a hard exterior and suggestions of vulnerability and a craving for human affection underneath. This grandma is no caricature – she’s definitely no sweet old lady, swearing and smoking weed and rubbing everyone she meets up the wrong way, but neither is she purely a barbed-tongued battle axe. Elle may present herself as a “horrible person” but we are always rooting for her throughout the movie. We see why people might hate her but also why they’d love her. In fact every character, from the main parts to cameos from Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox and Judy Greer, is drawn really well – and it shows in the acting, which is great across the board.
Pixie-like Julia Garner is good value too as granddaughter Sage. She has reliable comic timing with her reactions to Elle’s witty one-liners and consistent chemistry with the other actors, especially Tomlin and Marcia Gay Harden who plays the middle generation: Sage’s mum and Elle’s daughter, Judy. Director and writer Paul Weitz seems to have put a lot of effort into making this dysfunctional family unit realistic. It pays off most of all when the three of them share the screen, with some great scenes at Judy’s workplace when she discovers the real story behind Elle and Sage’s need for money.
Grandma joins a growing tradition of comedy dramas with an abortion subplot, with last year’s Jenny Slate film Obvious Child and of course Juno. There’s even a similar moment to Juno when we’re reminded that foetuses have fingernails outside an abortion clinic, only for Elle to find a clever comeback. By sidelining this plot in favour of exploration of how Elle got to be such a prickly character, Grandma puts a new spin on the peculiar abortion comedy genre. The film allows us to see her softening and becoming more accepting of mistakes made by both herself and others, while still retaining her punk rock attitude and wry sense of humour. It’s an interesting choice to focus on her character, and is perhaps at the expense of Sage who doesn’t get the chance to win us round in the same way. It’s turned out to be a good year for older female actors though, from Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years to Maggie Smith’s equally cantankerous Lady in the Van.
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