A hard-living, broke, jilted lesbian embarks on a fractious hunt for cash with her granddaughter. Screens at the 2015 Sydney Film Festival .
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Life has its fair share of truisms and the movies never shy from repeating them. How about ‘misery loves company?’ Or ‘you can’t choose your family?’ Both get a good run in Grandma, a tough love comedy from writer, producer and director Paul Weitz. There are parts of this film that are so good that it had me forget for a moment that Weitz directed Little Fockers (2010).
But then there’s nothing quaint or cute about Grandma. It’s a foul-mouthed sitcom about how a grandmother helps her grand daughter pull together enough cash to pay for an abortion.
In cold print such a premise might appear exploitative, tasteless, moralistic or preachy. But in the movies, treatment and tone are everything and Grandma ends up to be none of these things. It looks upon the choice of a termination with grave respect and never apologises for the clear-eyed direction each character must take.
Still, its one knock down, drag out virtue, towering over theme, content and style is Lily Tomlin. In a way, Weitz has built a monument to Tomlin in Grandma. In it Tomlin plays a gay poet and author who won fame and notoriety for taking outspoken positions on sex and gender, which rhymes neatly with the actor’s own life. Yet here I think Weitz’s devotion has its drawbacks. Which is to say, that the movie around Tomlin isn’t quite as good as the actor or the character. But every time I think it might topple under the power of another scene where Tomlin demolishes, harangues, and cries, Weitz has the discipline to pull back.
The film opens amidst a crisis. Elle (Tomlin) is breaking up with her short-term, much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). “Did you ever love me?” cries Olivia. “You were a footnote,” Elle growls back, the way a judge might explain a death sentence to the guilty. That’s about as nice as she can be. Later, Elle beats up a teenage boy with his own hockey stick. (It’s Mike Judd funny.) Then there’s the bit where she terrorises patrons in a café. This couple, a pastel nightmare of middle-class contentment, have the temerity to complain to the manager about the fact that Elle has been debating the merits of abortion at broadcast volume. Elle responds by throwing a fit. She’s a piece of work all right but there’s a lot of agony informing the rage. Elle, broke, disenchanted, ambitions exhausted, is suffering a drawn-out form of writer’s block. We find quickly the source of the pain. Elle is mourning the loss of her long-term companion Violet. She is facing her aging with fear and bile. Weitz is smart enough to give us access to Elle’s inner life from the start.
We share private moments of despair; a tearful breakdown under the shower, a longing look into a mirror… It’s a tactic that allows us to enjoy the theatre of Elle’s detonations while we await the moment when the impatient dogmatic bullshit gives way to genuine tenderness.
Shot in 19 days around an LA of tiny bungalows and low-key wealth, Grandma has a hand-held sunny immediacy. The light is soft and you can almost smell the eucalypt. The action is set over a single day. It’s a combination of road movie and journey back in time.
Sage (Julia Garner), Elle’s granddaughter, turns up not long after Olivia departs. She has till late afternoon to find the cash to pay for her abortion. Since Elle has cut up all her credit cards (and turned them into a wind chime) grandma most resort to calling on old friends and bad debts to raise the funds. So Sage and Elle hit the road.
After a couple of comic detours – a visit to a tattoo parlour where a transgender buddy of Elle’s reminiscences about the old days, a brief encounter with Sage’s mouthy boyfriend, and a terrific set piece in a feminist bookshop/cafe where Elle discovers the hard way that books, even The Female Eunuch, aren’t worth what they once were – the script confronts Elle with some unfinished business.
First there’s her old lover, Karl (Sam Elliott). He’s wealthy, friendly, giving and looking for sex for old times’ sake. There are old wounds and regrets (his and hers) and the need for an apology. It’s the best stuff in the movie, especially since it affords Tomlin and Weitz to change gears to a more sober, less manic, sincere kind of energy. Elliott, like the entire cast, is wonderful.
Finally, Elle in desperation must confront her own estranged daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s wealthy mother. The meeting is predictably fraught but very funny. Judy is a chip off the old block. Indeed, in her screaming, scathing, scolding comic ferocity she is even more terrifying than Elle. She’s frightened, too; what does this mean for her motherhood? The film ends with three generations, mothers and daughters, together, but can they learn to live with each other, make their choices and be who they need to be and expect support, comfort and care from the other? Weitz and co. leave that as an open question, but let’s just say the good fight is far from over… But the personal is the political and the best they can hope for, the film contends, is the odd accommodation and a little give and take.
Grandma is Lily Tomlin in her first lead role since Big Business in 1988 and that’s recommendation enough. It’s a mix of the erudite, the tough and the goofy where ‘writer in residence’ becomes a form of emotional abuse and the ‘Feminine Mystique’ is source for a comic monologue.