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Movie Review of the Week: “Grandma”

Movie Review of the Week: “Grandma”
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photo: courtesy of Sundance Institute/Sony Pictures Classic


Every now and then a film comes along featuring an actor seemingly playing him/herself.  As an audience, we bring our preconceptions to the table, adding our media-fueled imaginings to the mix. It happened last year when Michael Keaton played a former superhero trying to reclaim his career in “Birdman”. Now the lines are blurred between Elle Reid, a gay, feminist septuagenarian and Lily Tomlin, the woman who portrays her in “Grandma”, the wickedly funny, deeply poignant new film written and directed by Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”).

There is more to Tomlin of course than the fact that she is in her 70s, gay and a strong female role model. She is also known as a whip-smart wit with a quick tongue, characteristics that Elle shares. Elle’s acerbic, “take no prisoners” attitude forms the carapace of Tomlin’s performance, but there is also a deep well of bottled up, painful emotion peaking through. And there we are left to surmise at the similarities between screen and real life.

Elle is a writer of poetry who hasn’t published in years. Her older work is the kind that makes it into every Liberal Arts school women’s studies curriculum. She hasn’t written anything of note since Violet the love of her life passed away. Together they had a daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), but Elle and she are not close. After a brutally honest breakup with her current girlfriend, Elle gets a visit from her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who announces that she is pregnant and needs money for the abortion. Elle is flat broke and the two women embark on a picaresque quest to collect the amount from various friends and ex-lovers.

The word abortion is not often heard in movies. In fact the Motion Picture Production Code issued a guideline in 1956 that the topic be discouraged and the actual word not be used.  Recently, the taboo around the subject has shown signs of crumbling, although screen characters still mostly choose adoption (“Juno”) or motherhood (“Knocked Up”). There are many oh so convenient, cinematic false alarms. Last year’s “Obvious Child” took the bold move to show its protagonist going through with the procedure and “Grandma” equally stays strong in its commitment to real women’s issues with real outcomes.

Ultimately “Grandma” is a movie about being a woman and a mother and about the choices those roles engender. Weitz so cleverly weaves the “heavy” stuff in among the humor stemming from Elle’s bull-in-a-china-shop persona, that you don’t realize how moved you are until the very end. Notable appearances by Judy Greer, Laverne Cox and especially Sam Elliott enrich the road-trip. Elliott tops off a lifetime of macho sexiness with a heart-breaking, perfectly calibrated performance.

With roles for women “of a certain age” making a strong showing this year (Blythe Danner in “I’ll see you in my Dreams”, Helen Mirren in “Woman in Gold”, Meryl Streep in “Ricki and The Flash”), Tomlin continues to forge the way.  She appears in every barb-laced scene of “Grandma”, and skillfully commands our attention for its short, but potent running time.


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