Grandma: a feminist comedy that punches magnificently above its weight

In almost every way, Lily Tomlin, who plays the tart-tongued Grandma, is wonderful

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Apologies if you were expecting a review of Star Wars here, but Disney is not allowing critics access prior to the film’s opening on the 17th, and anyway, we’ve got Grandma, which was made for $600,000 in 19 days and has a running time of 79 minutes and stars a 76-year-old, so there is that. It’s also a feminist comedy with a plot driven by the need for an abortion, and if that doesn’t win you over, I’m not sure what else to say. It’s terrific? It’s small-scale, but punches magnificently above its weight? I laughed, and also cried? I could say that and have just said that, because it’s all true.

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin and there is every sense this wouldn’t be a film unless it starred Lily Tomlin because she is the film, basically. It’s the power of her performance that whacks you between the eyes. And it was, in fact, written for her by the writer-director Paul Weitz (American Pie, can you believe, and also About a Boy) and this is, as far as I can gather, her first substantial, bona fide leading film role for nearly 30 years, even though she is the foremother of this kind of feminist comedy, if it can rightly be called a ‘feminist’ comedy. I suppose any film that is properly about women has to be called that, to distinguish it from those in which J-Lo or Kate Hudson or similar is fixated with shoes/men/the perfect wedding venue and then takes off her glasses and my, isn’t she beautiful, and why didn’t we see that coming? This put me most in mind of Juno. Not as multilayered, possibly. But smart, funny, touching, and with characters you come to love.

Tomlin plays Elle, a poet and one-time professor, who, as the film opens, is booting out her far younger girlfriend of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer). Elle is tart-tongued and sarcastic but next we see her in the shower, sobbing wretchedly, so we know she is suffering somehow. She is visited by her granddaughter Sage, who is 16, 17, or thereabouts, and is seeking $600 for the abortion she has scheduled for later that day. Inconveniently for Sage, but conveniently for the narrative, Elle, fed up of living in debt, has just paid off all her loans and shredded her credit cards, so is broke. The two embark on a road trip around LA, trying to hustle the money from Elle’s friends, her boyfriend from years ago, and Sage’s boyfriend who should have come up with the money but didn’t. Elle whacks him with a hockey stick, which doesn’t go down well with Sage. What are people going to say at school? she asks, but Elle is able to reassure her. ‘What? He’s going to tell everyone Sage’s grandma beat him up?’ The journey ultimately leads them to Elle’s estranged daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), who is also, of course, Sage’s mother, and we learn why Sage didn’t go to her for the money in the first instance.

As I intimated earlier, you do have to suspend disbelief. Elle couldn’t have raised the money without tramping round LA? She has nothing to sell? What about that vintage car? And as Sage is still only ten weeks pregnant, which is well within the California abortion limit, why can’t they postpone the appointment and buy some time? But, even while I’m pointing all that out, I’m hating myself for pointing all that out, because there is so much that is good going on. Tomlin, in particular, is wonderful, not just comedically, but also at conveying sorrow and loss. (It turns out she is mourning Violet, her partner of 30 years, who recently died, and whom Olivia could not replace.) So this isn’t just about Grandma wreaking havoc, although she inevitably does — she wreaks havoc in a coffee shop, she wreaks havoc in a bookshop — as it goes deeper than that. In particular, the scene where Elle meets up with her former boyfriend from years ago, and they both somehow manage to provide a summation of their lives in just a few minutes, is emotionally devastating.

This has a clever script (it’s the first time I’ve heard ‘writer-in-residence!’ spat out as an insult, for example), treats all the main characters with kindness and sympathy, and abortion as a decision that’s Sage’s to make, and only hers. This doesn’t mean it’s taken lightly. You will think about it every day for the rest of your life, Elle tells her, but not to dissuade her. It’s just a fact. Although the end is not as daring as I might have hoped, and may be rather sentimental — there I go, picking holes again — this is still lovely. Not intergalactically lovely, but lovely all the same.

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  • SPW

    D.Ross as usual. I had hoped this columnist had left the building, but no. Glad there is a ‘Film’ column though. Are you working out your contract madam?

    You call a film that ennobles abortion “lovely”? As if being ignorant of film as a medium weren’t enough, now you are ignorant of decency.

  • Callipygian

    How about the disbelief that any female living in the modern West — where contraception is practically thrown at them, free of charge (in my youth, it was my hard-earned dollars: my boyfriend didn’t help, either) — really needs an abortion.

    I am coming to the conclusion that abortions are for the worst of us, who take the least precautions or none, and who are willing to subject themselves and their own to disturbing treatment and worse because they were too callous, feckless, and stupid to do anything better. And yes, I support the principle of abortion and no I am not in the least religious. I just have a modicum of decency and common sense.