Sometimes endings are beginnings. In Grandma, the new film by Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy), we start at the end; the end of a relationship between the acid-tongued Elle (Lily Tomlin) and her much younger girlfriend Olivia (the never long enough used Judy Greer). “You’re a footnote,” Elle says. It’s a mortal wound, to be sure, but with Elle’s 38-year love affair Violet having died just a year earlier it’s also painfully on point.
This introduction to Elle, the vituperative “writer in residence” former poet gives us a quick insight into Tomlin and Weitz’s creation; a woman of intelligence whose frankness is often cloaked in acerbic jabs but whose empathy is just under the surface. Enter Sage (Julia Garner, The Americans), Elle’s moppet of a granddaughter with the news that she has and ending to address as well. She’s 18 and pregnant and wants to get an abortion. Trouble is, the boyfriend who said he’d pay for it welches and she needs $630 for her 5:45 appointment that day. She can’t tell her mother, the over-caffeinated and ball-busting Judy (played by the hilarious Marcia Gay Harden) with whom Elle is estranged. Much to Sage’s chagrin, Elle reveals that she has $40 to her name. She doesn’t have a credit card; she cut it up to make a wind chime in protest. This sets off a road trip comedy in which Elle must call up old favors and debts in order to help her granddaughter out. In a more traditional (read, clichéd) version of a story like this, Elle’s relationship with her granddaughter would simply be the vehicle to repairing the relationship with her own daughter but Grandma never takes the easy road that way. It’s far more concerned with honesty and insight than it is quick fixes.
This sets us on a road trip that starts with Elle beating up Sage’s boyfriend (played with expert douchiness by Nat Wolff) and stealing his weed. Who wouldn’t want to see that? But then it becomes a trip down memory lane for Elle, hitting up people she hasn’t seen in months, years, decades. Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox shows up as a tattoo artist who can’t pay back her debt to Elle but can give her an ‘O’ tattoo. “Orgasm,” Elle says it stands for. “Olivia,” Sage says, leaving Elle nonplussed. Elle also has a series of first edition books she thinks she can sell for a pretty penny, including The Feminine Mystique. “Like X-Men?” says Sage. Cue Elle’s nonplussed response again. They truck themselves down to a local bookstore run by an old friend of Elle’s, Carla (played the late and great Elizabeth Peña) but reminiscing turns sour quickly.
That means there’s only one option left. The ladies jump into Elle’s beat up old jalopy and head up to a mysterious location in the hills. It’s here we meet Karl (played to perfection by Sam Elliot), Elle’s first romance with whom unresolved bitterness has never settled. I could have probably listened to Sam Elliot just say “corn” and “zucchini” all day long. His voice is one of those that was made for narration or voiceover as it is gravel in a velvet glove; soothing and truthful. Their reunion begins respectfully enough but soon that history comes to the surface in the film’s most emotional moment. In his short screen time Elliot runs the gamut of emotions so fully and truthfully that it results in the best performance of his career and an Oscar nomination-worthy one at that.
At a brisk 80 minutes, Grandma doesn’t waste a moment in devotion to Tomlin’s bravura performance. There is no ‘B’ story here. Weitz has crafted a film that is quintessential Tomlin and she’s never been better. It’s such a refreshing take on a story like this, which we mostly see reserved for old men like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Bruce Dern in Nebraska. Both of those performances landed their leads Oscar nominations and this could very well be Tomlin’s ticket to a very deserved second.