“Grandma” stuns as lesson in character development

Grandma is a coming-of-age—or rather a coming-to-terms-with age—dramedy that might actually resonate more with us than with our grandparents. Written and directed by Paul Weitz, the film speaks to the cross-generational plights of women, both young and old, and the challenges they face in modern American society. Heartwarming, disarming, and often laugh-out-loud funny, Grandma manages to navigate these potentially intangible issues through the brilliance of its female leads and the honesty of the characters they portray.

Where topics of homosexuality, feminism, and teenage pregnancy might otherwise fall into the subplot of another film, Grandma examines these themes without slapping the audience in the face with rallying calls for social reform. Instead, they act as a simple set of conditions from which the majority of the film’s plot unfolds.

Lily Tomlin plays the titular grandma Elle Reid, a 70-year -old lesbian woman living in the post-fame of a successful career writing feminist poetry. After her partner of 38 years dies, Elle has decided to pursue somewhat of a devil-may-care lifestyle. This includes ruthlessly dumping her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), paying off all of her debt at once, and cutting up her credit cards “just to make a point”.

All of this behavior comes to a screeching halt when Elle’s 17-year old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her doorstep with the news that she is 10 weeks pregnant. Refusing to ask her overbearing mother for help, Sage begs Elle for $600 to pay for the abortion that she has scheduled for later that day. We then see the two begin a daylong odyssey in which grandmother and granddaughter desperately attempt to scrounge up enough money for the procedure.

In the film’s initial scenes, the bickering between the two women provides the majority of the entertainment. There are some classic grandma gags: grandma can’t read a phone screen, grandma beats up teenage punk, grandma doesn’t know what Ebay is, etc.  However, these moments are soon made insignificant as the characters further develop. What at first looks like a quirky duo—the old lesbian grandmother and her frizzy-haired, pregnant granddaughter—eventually reveals itself to be a beautiful friendship between two struggling women. There is an unmistakable camaraderie that simultaneously arises from and celebrates the female experience of the human condition.

Drama and comedy, as it turns out, are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the most genius part of the film is its successful treatment of this juxtaposition. In fact, the contrast between the two accurately mimics the absurdity of everyday life in a way that imbues the film with a rare level of depth. In Grandma, moments of comedy are quickly followed by, or often occur simultaneously as, some of the film’s most emotional scenes.

Paul Weitz’s characterization of the two leading women provides a refreshing honesty to the overall film. That being said, the most remarkable contribution to the film has to be the performance by Lily Tomlin herself. For those of us who are unfamiliar with Tomlin’s career, as I was before seeing Grandma, her role as Elle seems to have been a natural fit. Along with her extensive career as an actor, she has been a comedian, a vocal feminist, and a pioneering voice for LGBT rights, as well as a gay woman herself. Perhaps that is why she is able to so expertly communicate Elle’s impulsive and energetic character while delivering every line with perfect timing.

Elle’s unapologetic “screw you” attitude is one of the character’s most defining traits. In one scene, she yells to a barista “I’m spelling out your name: FUCKHEAD,” which exemplifies the mix of anger and arrogance the character projects to those around her throughout the film.  It is in the rare private moments and in the intimate talks with Sage where Tomlin truly shines, however. During these moments, every word she utters reveals the unspoken pain she feels for the loss of her partner. By contrast, the loud, angry character we are first introduced to seems like just a shell. Through the course of one day, the movie certainly shows the winding journey of two women, but it has a much simpler goal. Grandma provides an excellent case study in successful characterization. In this case, the 82 minute long movie is nothing more than an emotional insight into the pain of a heartbroken woman.

Grandma is a quick-witted masterpiece that will catch you off guard with its emotional resonance. If nothing else, Lily Tomlin’s performance alone is worth the seven dollars you pay for a ticket.