“Time passes. That’s for sure.” (Eileen Myles)
Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) is not having a good day.
With her past coming up to meet her, as it always does, to remind her things aren’t as good as they once were, and her present taking the turn for the unexpected with the sudden appearance of granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who announces she’s pregnant and needs an abortion, Elle has her hands full, and then some.
Throw in a prim-and-proper estranged daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who everyone seems afraid of, a new girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) that Elle has unkindly referred to as a relationship “footnote” – she recently lost the love of her life, and co-parent Violet or “Vi” and has yet to recover, if she will at all – and a plethora of old “friends” and one ex (male) lover, and it’s beginning to resemble one of those things where the best thing to do is to stay in bed and demand the world leave you the hell alone.
But that’s not an option with Sage having already booked at appointment to have the abortion for later that same day, having no money to pay the bill and douche boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff) refusing to act like a grown up, and so Elle, played with merrymaking wit by an enthusiastic Tomlin, makes what she can of a potentially bad situation.
Oh, and did we mention she cut up all her credit cards as an act of defiance of some kind?
Yup, she did, completely in keeping the impulsive, angry creative soul that has fuelled so much of her poetry, and rather cleverly – take a bow screenwriter Paul Weitz, who also directs this remarkable taut and emotionally-punchy film – cutting off what could have a narrative-killing option.
In the hands of Tomlin, who is in masterful form, at turns acerbically biting (“Some men shouldn’t grow facial hair. You look like an armpit” and “Oh, she doesn’t need an ESPRESSO”) and hauntingly vulnerable and open, and the richly-talented cast that surround her, none of whom miss a beat, Grandma resonates with the kind of insights and exchanges that can make American indie drama, at its best, such a thing of revelatory power.
And Grandma is a thinking film, as much as it is a nuanced. emotionally-studied one, and damn funny into the bargain largely thanks to Tomlin and the winningly oneliner-punctuated script, exploring how time moves far too fast, leaving a mess of tangled, not always easy to resolve consequences in its wake.
Through the course of what she later calls a “very long day”, Elle, in the service of finding her granddaughter the money she needs – both grandmother and granddaughter are as broke as each other, and refuse to tell daughter/Mother Judy what’s going on for fear of immediate heavily-barbed censure – revisits a series of old friends and lovers.
Some visits go well such as the warm and effusive catch up with transgender tattoo artist Deathy ( Laverne Cox), whose lovingly heartfelt recitation of all the things Elle has done for her rounds out the hitherto ballsy, angry woman’s character with the hidden compassion and concern she holds in spades, while others?
Well, not so much, and yet not so bad in the end – seeing her ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott) after 30 years is fraught and warm, sometimes all at once – if you look at things from a purely tying up existential bows somewhat neatly perspective.
It turns out as the day goes on, that Sage’s situation, which provides plenty of opportunities for Tomlin and Garner to deliver pitch perfect exchanges which speak to loss and regret and poor decisions made, often at a young age, is the catalyst for an unplanned and initially wholly unwelcome toting up of the accounts of Elle’s life.
And while she is found wanting in some regards – the inevitable meet-up with daughter Judy, while it eventually warms up as communication breaks down long-held barriers – she is also exposed as the cranky-woman-with-a-heart-of-gold when she needs to be, something you suspect she doesn’t want publicised in a hurry.
Grandma succeeds because Weitz invests it and the characters that power it forward with their regret, warmth, hilarity (again mostly Elle) and well-articulated introspection, with an authentic sense of hopefulness in among all the face-slapping realisation that we can all do better when it comes to wise life decisions and their unwelcome consequences.
Rather than descending into regretful melodrama, awash in life’s regrets and missteps, Grandma is in instead a humour-draped dissertation on the idea that things are never quite as bad as they seem.
Make no mistakes, this is no Pollyanna in L.A. journey where everyone learns their lesson and lives happily ever after, but enough does go right, and enough existential bows are neatly tied, that you walk away reminded that life, for all its less than stellar moments, actually isn’t a bad thing if you’re willing to take the good with the bad.
It may feel like a long day for Elle, but Weitz, writes sparingly and honestly, for all the lavish, scene-stealing oneliners handed to Elle, using its tautly-plotted 78 minutes to tell a richly-engaging, heartfelt and meaningful story that resonates long after Elle, feeling oddly content at the end of the day after it begin with so much angst and uncertainty, meanders happily down a laneway as dusk falls.