Grandma (dir. Paul Weitz)

Posted: October 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Grandma” is a breath of fresh air.  When so many films these days are about special effects or two-dimensional cartoons that films insist on telling us are characters, it is simply refreshing to see a film about actual characters who feel like living, breathing people.  “Grandma” has a plot, albeit a simple one, but the film is about interesting characters dealing with a genuine but not huge problem, and we end up enjoying a short but sweet film that is here to tell us that we’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we shouldn’t be shamed if we acknowledge our mistakes and try to fix them.

The great Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a lesbian poet whose long-time partner died a few years back.  As we meet her, she is breaking up with her current girlfriend, Olivia (the invaluable Judy Greer) in a seemingly callous manner.  Soon after this, Elle is visited by her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner).  Sage has a problem.  She’s 18, pregnant, and doesn’t have the money to get the abortion she has scheduled for later that afternoon.  Elle has recently cut up her credit cards after becoming debt free, and is short on liquid cash at the moment, so the film becomes a trip around town as Elle hits up old friends to try to scrape together $600.00+ to pay for Sage’s abortion.  The results of this are funny (as when a former women’s clinic that did abortions for free has become a coffee shop run by a Christian), heartbreaking (a visit to a former male flame of Elle’s, played wonderfully by Sam Elliot), and funny again (Elle getting punched by a little girl outside of an abortion clinic).

The film is episodic in nature and divided into chapters, giving the film the feel of connected short films where each scene is almost a story in miniature, and allows for a better blending of comedy and drama in a way that feels tonally cohesive in a way few other dramedies do.  Lily Tomlin keeps us laughing with her realistically-and-never-sitcommy snarkiness, even when other characters are making us feel something deeper and more serious.  The best scene in the film features the aforementioned Sam Elliot, who starts off as a quirky character before giving us an absolutely heart-wrenching section where grief, loss, and just complete HURT is felt in every word he speaks.  The fact that he’s speaking of a hurt the character has been feeling for decades makes it all the more powerful, because we’re shown a man who has not be healed by time for wounds too deep, and wounds caused by an action I won’t reveal here, but is an action that wasn’t wholly wrong for Elle to have done.

The film seemingly pokes the barrel of hot-button issues.  Our main character is an elderly lesbian and the whole film is about attempting to get the granddaughter (who is the least rich character in the film) an abortion.  Honestly, the lesbian subject matter at this point just feels like a normal subject matter and not a capitalized Subject Matter.  No one save for the most right-wing of religious people are shocked or taken aback by realistic depictions of homosexual romance anymore, and for that we should all be grateful.  I do like that this film eschews arch stereotypes of lesbians and just feels natural about the subject.  As for abortion, well, it is odd that a legal medical procedure has become one of the most taboo topics for film to cover. Most films either casually dismiss it (“Knocked Up”) or mention it as an option only to have it be the option that is not chosen (“Juno”).  “Grandma” even kind of takes a jab at “Juno” by having Elle dismiss an abortion protestor brining up when a fetus has fingernails.  Recently, I can only think of “Greenburg” when I try to recall recent films where abortions are performed without any sort of moralizing about the issue.  For a popular, mainstream film, you might have to go back to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and that was 33 years ago. “Grandma” does cover the ethics of abortion and the doubts the granddaughter has, but the film comes down firmly on the side of prochoice while also not downplaying the seriousness of the decision, how hard it is to make that decision, and also allowing a character (again, Sam Elliot) voice legitimate grievances with certain aspects, even if they’re neutral on abortion in and of itself.  This is a fiction film that deals with abortion in a reasonable, adult manner, and that’s so rare that it seems transgressive when it really shouldn’t.

The film was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and I am as shocked as can be that this film was not only written and directed by a man (female character are rarely written this well and authentically by a male writer), but that it was written and directed by Paul Weitz, whose career up to this point has largely been in teen comedies or otherwise really bad comedies. He co-directed the first “American Pie”, which was genuinely good and funny film that attempted to be not-as-misogynistic towards women as other teen sex comedies had been, and was marginally successful in that regard. Then he went on to co-write the unfunny “Nutty Professor 2”, co-direct the unfunny “Down to Earth”, co-write and co-direct the critically successful but unliked-by-me “About a Boy”, write and direct the decent but forgettable “In Good Company”, write and direct the underrated but unnecessary cultural satire “American Dreamz”, write and direct the unseen-by-me and critically hated “Cirque du Freak”, and so on.  “Grandma” is far and away his best film.  It blows all of his other films out of the water, and it’s a shock that he had this film in him, and it took him this long in his career to make it.  Lily Tomlin is a huge reason why this film is successful, but the naturalistic screenplay which deftly balances humor and drama, laughs and pathos, is a magnificent feat by a screenwriter I didn’t exactly respect before seeing this film.  That has now changed. Weitz has delivered a wonderful film here.

“Grandma” is the type of film you don’t see much anymore.  It is character-driven, feels real (albeit with more articulate and interesting people than we normally meet in it), deals with issues in a naturalistic and appropriate manner, and makes you feel something, even if the stakes are relatively small.  Nowadays these types of films go through the festival circuit before being dumped to VOD and forgotten, and I’m glad that this film has gotten a wider-than-usual theatrical release.  It’s smart, charming, made me feel something, and is one of the best films of the year. A-.

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