GRANDMA, drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
The title hints at where we’re going. This is a movie about relationships. The central relationship is the one that binds Elle (Lily Tomlin) and her teenage granddaughter Sage ( Julia Garner). But there are a bunch of others in this sweet, funny, thoughtful chapter-book, written and directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy).
One of them is coming to an end as the movie opens, as Elle breaks off her four-month relationship with a much younger lover, Olivia (Judy Greer). This chapter is called “endings,” and in it, we learn of a more painful recent ending, the death of Elle’s longtime companion Vi. Elle realizes that her new relationship is wrong for many reasons, age not the least of them, and she feels she has to end it brutally to cut the cord. “You’re a footnote,” she tells the stunned Olivia.
Elle is a poet who was once “marginally famous,” but that too ended long ago. As she wallows nostalgically over scrapbooks after Olivia’s departure, her granddaughter arrives on her doorstep, bringing with her yet another ending: She’s pregnant, and she needs money for an abortion.
Elle is broke, and she’s cut up her credit cards to make a wind chime (“I’m transmogrifying my life into art.”) And so the two pile into Elle’s ancient Dodge and visit a number of her friends and acquaintances trying to borrow the money for Sage’s procedure, as the story moves through chapters with names like “ink,” “the ogre,” and “kids.”
The bedrock of Grandma is Tomlin’s smart, caustic, loving portrayal of Elle, but the rest of the cast doesn’t let her down. The pretty, elfin Greer holds her own against Tomlin’s powerhouse performance. Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother as a tough-as-nails businesswoman with a heart that’s been well-insulated but still might be accessible. And best of all is Sam Elliott as Karl, another figure from Elle’s past. Elliott takes us well beyond that lovable growl of a voice to uncover layers and depths he’s seldom called upon to tap.
Grandma suffers a few awkward moments, but for the most part it stays sharp. In the old days, movies followed prescribed formulas and conventions when it came to stories involving some of the key elements featured here, like lesbian relationships and abortion. Weitz does interesting things with those old conventions, weaving them into a story that borrows from tried-and-true familiar formats — it’s a bit of a road movie, a bit of a buddy movie — and then quietly goes its own way. — Jonathan Richards
Generation trap: Lily Tomlin