Grandma is a consistently, modestly pleasant little indie. A snapshot of a life taken over the course of one day, the latest comedy-drama from writer-director Paul Weitz captures the small bits of sadness that fill up the margins of most people’s existence. That doesn’t mean Grandma is particularly profound or original, but it’s time memorably spent.
Lily Tomlin stars as Elle, a 70-something lesbian poet who, this particular morning, is reeling. She has just broken up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), but we suspect that the melancholy goes deeper, to the death of her long-term partner Violet 18 months ago—a shattering experience that appears to have left her permanently unsteady. Not that you can tell at first: With her sharp tongue and brusque manner, Elle gives off the impression of being a person who sees through other people’s nonsense, not having time for their self-delusion or foolishness.
Soon after a teary Olivia departs Elle’s Los Angeles home, Elle is visited by her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who tells her that she needs $600 dollars for an abortion she’s scheduled to have later that day. Elle doesn’t have the money—she doesn’t even own a credit card—and so Grandma becomes the two characters’ journey to find someone who might be able to loan them the dough.
For a movie whose plot revolves around an abortion, Grandma is refreshingly low-key, sidestepping hot-button topicality for a matter-of-fact depiction about all sorts of choices and how people learn to live with them. Weitz, working from his first original screenplay since 2006’s American Dreamz, settles his characters into a comfortable, familiar groove: Elle and Sage visit a person from Elle’s past, some new details about Elle’s past are revealed, and then the duo move on to the next person on their list. As nuanced and delicate as these encounters are, Weitz preferring a lifelike breeziness in the exchanges, Grandma nonetheless exudes a certain movie-magic artificiality. None of Elle’s stops are simple affairs, with each new player in the drama having some sort of unresolved issue with Elle that conveniently comes into the light once she steps through the door.
But it’s a testament to Grandma that such a potentially repetitive structure yields so many grace notes. At one point, Elle and Sage visit Karl (Sam Elliott), a former lover of Elle’s who Sage doesn’t know. Through the young woman’s eyes, we see a lifetime of unspoken sentiments play out in only a few scenes—and even if the revelations are somewhat predictable, Tomlin and Elliott bring such calm authority to their roles that they put flesh and pain on their characters’ complicated history. Earlier, she seeks out an old friend, a tattoo artist named Deathy (Laverne Cox) and, eventually, resigns herself to talking to her daughter and Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Along the way, some mysteries about Elle are explained: why she had a child with a man; why she loves her granddaughter but is scared of her daughter; why she’s broke; and, perhaps, why she’s such a proud card-carrying grump.
This wisp of a movie runs 80 minutes, including end credits, and it can be burdened with preciousness. There are numbered chapter titles, and composer Joel P. West adorns the soundtrack with aural-wallpaper piano that seems to be the official soundtrack to earnest Sundance American indies. (Grandma premiered at the Park City festival in January.) But if the film’s gentle fragility can sometimes be overdone, that doesn’t overwhelm the close attention Weitz and his cast bring to the material.
In her later years, Tomlin has often played crusty-old-gal roles—she and Weitz met when he cast her in such a part for his 2013 romantic comedy Admission—but in Grandma, she gets to add dimensions to a stereotype. Elle may be quick with the snark, but Tomlin plays her as an older woman who simply seems tired by the disappointments of her life, the character’s quips mostly a way to keep the world at bay for a few moments. Elle isn’t demonstrably warmer around her granddaughter, but we sense a rapport between them, a shared inability to fit in, that makes their daylong misadventures an unlikely bonding event. (And, as we’ll discover, the two women are also connected beyond just a bloodline.)
Garner feels a bit young in her role, but that may be by design. As its title indicates, Grandma is primarily interested in Elle, but Weitz also keeps an eye on Sage, whose unwanted pregnancy suggests a naïve woman stumbling into adulthood, still trying to find her sea legs, and as a result the performance has some wobbliness to it. Harden slightly overdoes Judy’s type-A workaholic—she isn’t given the screen time that Elle enjoys to develop a character beyond the clichés—but the Oscar-winning actress brings enough charm and compassion to the part to make her interactions with her distant mother appreciably nuanced.
For all the minor insights contained in Grandma, it’s not a spoiler alert to mention that nothing truly momentous occurs by the film’s finale. (Even the movie’s big question—Will Sage go through with the abortion?—is handled with an offhand tact that’s humane but also in keeping with the mixed emotions facing many women in that situation.) Weitz’s intimate character study argues that no one day makes that much difference in a person’s life—but if we’re attuned enough to the slight shifts in feeling or circumstance that can happen at any moment, maybe we can readjust our worldview. That’s a comforting notion, one that this cautiously optimistic movie leaves itself open to believing is possible.
Director: Paul Weitz
Writer: Paul Weitz
Starring: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.