GRANDMA (2015) review
written by: Paul Weitz
produced by: Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz, Paris Kasidokostas-Latsis & Terry Dougas
directed by: Paul Weitz
rating: R (for language and some drug use)
runtime: 78 min.
U.S. relase date: August 21, 2015 & August 28, 2015 (limited)
“Grandma” may be short and sweet, but it is one of the most rewarding stories I’ve seen unfold on the big-screen so far this year. It’s the latest film by writer and director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”, “American Dreamz” and “Admission”) and when the film ended, I had the same whelming feeling of satisfaction that I had after watching his 2012 film, “Being Flynn”. Both films offer viewers fully-realized, lived-in characters that we can empathize and connect and provide us with a rare and needed examination of cantankerous characters that we would probably over look in real life. In “Grandma” there’s no way to overlook the fantastic character wonderfully played by an actress that hasn’t headlined a movie in 27 years.
Elle (Lilly Tomlin) is a septuagenarian poet and essayist still reeling from the loss of her longtime partner, Violet, a couple years back. We meet her just as she dumps Olivia (Judy Greer, in a small role that redeems her neglectful small roles from earlier this summer) her seemingly kind and supportive girlfriend of four months. It’s not a kind or considerate break-up. The sharp-tongued Elle has no time for niceties as she beyond breaking it to her gently. This is only minutes into “Grandma” and I found myself noticing what a great intro this is to the film – immersing the audience head-first into the lives of these characters with nary an exposition to be found.
Then Elle’s teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julie Warner) arrives at her doorstep. Elle is elated to see her, but knows something is up. Sure enough, Sage is there asking for money for an abortion. The news doesn’t really shock Elle, who’s been around the block a few times. She doesn’t explode like her daughter (Sage’s mother) would, which is why the eighteen year-old has come to her grandmother instead of her mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a hardened attorney. Although Elle is broke, she reassures Sage they will find a way to get the $615.00 she needed for the 5:15 appointment she has with a local clinic that evening.
The rest of “Grandma” finds Elle driving Sage around in Violet’s old Dodge as they look up the acerbic Elle’s few remaining acquaintances, some current and some old. But before they do that, they’re first stop is to look up Sage’s baby daddy, Cam (Nat Wolff, from the recent “Paper Towns”) and that doesn’t turn out well. Next they look up Deathy (Laverne Cox, “Orange is the New Black”) a tattoo artist pal of Elle’s, but they only thing they get out of that stop is a tattoo for Elle. When attempting to sell first edition feminist and lesbian books to Carla (Elizabeth Pena, in one of her very last roles) backfires, Elle sucks it up and heads over to the home of Karl (Sam Elliott), to pay an unexpected visit to an old flame from her past. Throughout their day-long journey Elle and Sage gain some perspective about each other and get on each other’s last nerve, while learning to apologize, say “thank you” and love regardless of how hard it is.
There are definitely some laugh-out-loud moments in “Grandma”, but the day Paul Weitz gives us with Elle and Sage is filled with some heavy moments. His story is one filled with emotional scars, but it’s delivered with such a light tough and a script so dead-on and tight, brought to life by actors who obvious see the valuable material they’re working with. The entire movie, from start to finish, succeeds in hitting all the right internal notes for the audience and may have us apply more empathy toward others in our life.
As great as Weitz’s screenplay is, “Grandma” really benefits from a such a fine cast, some of whom have worked with the writer/director in the past. Tomlin was in “Admission” (playing Tina Fey’s mother) and knows how to make a laugh work, but more importantly for this film, she knows how to dig deep and convey the multiple layers of emotion underneath Elle’s wounded and biting exterior. She comes across as cruel and sarcastic with no patience for a-holes, yet she displays a great deal of nurturing sensitivity when it comes to her granddaughter. It’s easy to immediately follow Tomlin’s independent free-spirited character, but the range she gifts the role is a treasure. I envy anyone discovering her for the first time with this film.
The scene that we’ll see again come year-end award season is the one she has with Elliott. It’s a wonderfully plotted scene that builds to such a surprising and rewarding performance from Elliott, who gives a believably wounded Karl a chance to confront Elle on leaving him for another woman about 40 years ago. He’s single now and has had four wives and a busload of grandkids, but Elle’s visit asking him for money for an abortion hits on some exposed nerves that leaves us with one of the most memorable supporting performances in the veteran actor’s career. Sure, moviegoers recognize him most for “Roadhouse”, “Tombstone” and “The Big Lebowski”, but the supporting work he’s done just this year in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Digging for Fire” as well as this role, indicates a nice shift from tough cowboy type roles to men who are more relaxed and in touch with their feelings and comfortable with who they are.
Weitz has given Warner a character that is thankfully the polar opposite of so many teens we’ve seen on-screen in her predicament. Sage isn’t annoying, disrespectful or plugged into headphones 24/7. She’s young and made some dumb decisions and is intimidated by her mother – just as Elle is, “I’ve been afraid of her since she was five.” – but hasn’t removed herself so far that she won’t accept the emotional support she longs for, either from Elle or her mother. Eventually and inevitably, the three generations get together and despite awkward body language and tension between the three of them, there is a sense that some kind of healing can begin. Tomlin, Warner and Harden are great together, inhabiting characters that feel real, conveying dysfunction and unspoken hurt that’s been held on over the years. They aren’t one-note characters and they feel like people we know.
“Grandma” is a reminder of the films that come around each year that deserve word-of-mouth. It’s smart, full of heart and lacking the stereotypes you’d expect from a film about a crotchety grandmother. It’s also a great reminder of Tomlin’s talent and that they are indeed great roles for women. You can definitely look for Tomlin and Elliott to get their well-deserved due come Oscar time. As for Weitz, I continue to be impressed and look forward to his upcoming projects.