The last time Lily Tomlin had a lead role in a film was almost three decades ago. It’s been too long. “Grandma” shows her at age 75 in fine form as a cantankerous poet who goes on a journey, both physical and metaphysical, on one busy afternoon.
Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a once famous poet, now an unemployed seventy-something living alone following the death of Violet, her companion of thirty-eight years. Her quiet life is interrupted when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives at her door looking for $630 to have an abortion. Her high school boyfriend promised to pay but now doesn’t have the money or the interest to help out. Elle doesn’t have the cash either but hits the road with Sage in search of the cash.
“Mom says you’re a philanthropist,” says Sage. “Wait, that’s not it… misanthropic.”
“That’s an understatement,” `snorts Elle.
Over the next few hours they drop in, unannounced, on the slacker boyfriend (Nat Wolff), an old friend of Elle’s (Sam Elliott), an angry café owner (the late Elizabeth Peña), an old flame (Judy Greer) and the one person who intimidates both Elle and Sage (Marcia Gay Harden).
The premise of “Grandma” is provocative. A young woman and her grandmother trying to raise cash for an abortion is bound to raise an eyebrow or two, but the movie isn’t really about that. The abortion is the McGuffin, the reason for the journey but not the reason for the story. The abortion is treated matter-of-factly, it’s the relationships that count.
It’s a pleasure to watch Tomlin let loose as Elle. As Elle she’s an unstoppable force of nature, unrepentant and resourceful. It’s great fun to watch her bully her way through life but Tomlin adds dimension to the character, allowing her vulnerable side to peak through from time to time. She commands the screen whether she’s being argumentative, beating up a teen (yup, she does that) or crying in the shower at the remembrance of lost love. It’s the moments of openness that elevate “Grandma” from “Grumpy Old Lady” movie to interesting character study.
Good performances keep “Grandma’s” relationships dynamic and by the time all is said and done the message of life goes on, hiccups and all, is subtly but powerfully enforced.