By Nick Anstett
Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) has a misanthropy problem. After the death of her long term partner just over a year ago, the aging poet has slipped into a long period of anger and self-loathing. Her current girlfriend (Judy Greer) cannot even raise a single, “I love you” out of her even when pressured. Elle’s ability to understand or even enjoy the world has slipped and left behind something that even she cannot stand. However, Reid’s world of melancholy becomes upended shortly after her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives at her doorstep. Sage is pregnant and does not intend to keep the pregnancy. With the father barely in the picture, she has made an appointment with a local clinic but lacks the money to pay for the procedure. When Elle finds herself short on cash as well, the two of them are forced to call in favors from old chapters of her life.
Writer and director Paul Weitz, perhaps best known for his work on “American Pie,” finds strength in infusing “Grandma” with a quiet sense of poeticism. The film clocks in just under 90 minutes in length, and its episodic structure is both visually and thematically cut off into individual stanzas or chapters. Due to the main character’s status as a poet, this structural choice proves effective and often times illuminating to the thematic choices Weitz and his actors make. With its refreshingly brief runtime, “Grandma” feels almost like reading a form of cinematic lyric essay or poem.
It feels personal, societally restless, and is often times quite funny, but ends before its presence becomes daunting or unwelcome. In the meantime, “Grandma” engages with topics such as aging, loss, feminism, sexuality, and pregnancy with a curmudgeonly, and yet a genuine sense of humor. It weaves its social structure into the narrative in a way that feels organic to the fictional world presented as a whole and in that way avoids the danger of feeling preachy. That being said, not all of its jokes land with the sharpness or pangs of humor that Weitz structures them to be. The success instead lies in the moments when the film’s melancholy intersects with its brand of every day absurdism to find the humor in the sad and mundane.
While Weitz’s script may provide some of the most immediate gratification for viewership, Tomlin’s performance proves to be the most impressive portion of “Grandma.” Dramatic comedies, or dramadies if you will, live and die by their performances, and Tomlin rises to the occasion with daunting commitment and vulnerability. While perhaps too much of “Grandma” finds itself concerned with how Elle subverts expectations of typical grandparents, the results are nonetheless amusing and captivating. Tomlin also succeeds in finding the emotional and humorous heart in her co-stars. She and Garner establish a rapport that carries the majority of the film very early into its run time with some of the highlights coming from the intersection of generations that the two craft out of Weitz’s script. Laverne Cox, Sam Elliot, and Marcia Gay Hayden also make brief appearances during Sage and Elle’s retrospective road trip, and each own every second of their presence with the same energy, Elliot in particular.
“Grandma’s” brand of humor and subject matter may not land home for all viewers, but its quick, poetic, and unassuming nature make it a trip that pleases much more than it disappoints.