Tomlin’s feminist Grandma takes to the road in sharp black comedy
At 75, Lily Tomlin has had such a long, varied acting career that few may not realize she hasn’t actually had a leading role in a film since the 1988 comedy Big Business. Thanks to writer/director Paul Weitz, though, who directed Tomlin as Tina Fey’s mother in 2013’s Admission, Tomlin returns to brilliantly helm a picture in Weitz’s smart and engaging Grandma, which opens widely today after rightfully garnering much praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Tomlin plays Elle, a retired academic and feminist poet, financially strapped and still reeling from the death of her longtime partner Violet after a brutal battle with cancer. Acerbic and no-nonsense, Elle coldly breaks up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) in a heart-breaking scene that finds Elle sobbing in the shower after being icy and cruel minutes earlier with Olivia. Thus we understand that Elle’s toughness masks inner pain and sorrow that we only begin to see as the picture initially unfolds.
We learn more about her history and motivations as we follow Elle and her teenage granddaughter Sage (a very lovely Julia Garner) on a darkly comic quest that finds Elle trying to help Sage procure $630 to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Stops along the way bring the pair into contact with a slew of old friends and family from Elle’s past, including Laverne Cox as a tattoo artist whose praise of Elle makes Sage see her in a new light, Sam Elliott as a very old friend with whom Elle shares a secret, and Marcia Gay Harden, as Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother Judy, a workaholic whose forthright tendencies are more similar to Elle’s than either would like to admit.
The cast is terrific all around; even the actors in smaller parts, like John Cho as an annoyed café owner, Nat Wolff as Sage’s dimwitted boyfriend, and Elizabeth Peña as a feminist bookstore owner shine in fresh, funny, and well-written roles. But this is Tomlin’s showcase all the way, and she’s not afraid to imbue Elle with unlikable traits; in Tomlin’s hands, Elle is complicated and unflinchingly honest, but she loves her family, and she’s not afraid to stand up to anyone who crosses her, or them. Tomlin may well be nominated for an Oscar for the first time since 1978’s Nashville on the strength of this raw and passionate performance.
And the story itself is worth seeing for the clear-eyed, straightforward way it deals with abortion; this picture might be considered the anti-Juno; whereas that teenage pregnancy story looked at the consequences of giving a baby up for adoption, this one looks at the ramifications of making an alternate choice, and does so with equal sensitivity, humor, and truth. Weitz is adept at combining the laughter and tears that so often make up life’s more complex moments, and, lucky for us, we have Tomlin’s Grandma Elle to help us through the chaos.
Grandma opens today at the Century 9 and Kabuki theaters in San Francisco, and next Friday, September 4th, more widely throughout the Bay Area.