Movie Review: Grandma gives us something to relate to

Lily Tomlin stars in a feminist comedy-drama that stays with you long after you leave the theater.

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4 stars out of 5
Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner and Marcia Gay Harden.
Opens Fri., Sept. 18, at AMC Westshore and Villagio Cinemas.

Grandma is a strange mix of comedy and melancholy that fosters a connection with its characters. The film begins with a maudlin Ellie (Lily Tomlin), a stubborn feminist poet who is coping with the loss of her partner, Violet, and has been paid a surprise visit by her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), who needs money for an abortion. After Ellie explains that she has no money, they take to the road to find ways to pay for Sage’s visit to the clinic.

From this point on, the film becomes a ticking clock as Sage has already made an appointment for later that day and refuses to go to her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) for help. Directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie, Little Fockers),  Grandma is an interesting change of pace as it explores the meaning of family and femininity. 

Lily Tomlin thrives in the role of Ellie. She perfectly delivers her snarky lines and her aggressive feminist mantras while still revealing a deep solicitude for her granddaughter, highlighting a maternal instinct she may not have acknowledged was there. We grow to love Ellie for the very same strong-willed outspokenness that lands her into trouble.

Gay Harden, despite appearing on screen briefly, is wonderful in her role as an intense career woman. Harden oozes the aura of a quick-tempered business woman that shows viewers why Sage is so afraid to come to her for help. Judy comes off as cold and demanding, initially showing more concern for her career than her daughter. However, when she calms down and joins Ellie to care for her daughter, Harden moves through the transition from a fierce business woman to a caring mother organically, leaving behind all signs of sappy sentimentality.

The nonchalance in the way Ellie discusses her granddaughter’s plan for an abortion can be startling. However, this seemingly cavalier attitude towards Sage’s condition opens up a dialogue throughout the film about the reproductive choices that women make and even what it means to be a woman. This element is discussed directly when Ellie explains to Sage that her mother Judy was correct in deciding to have her through a sperm donor. She stresses that even though she never knew a father, her mother should not be shamed for wanting to have a career and a child. As the story develops we learn of the reproductive choices each of the these women has made and why it matters to them.

Grandma touches upon feminist values as well as LGBT representation in a refreshing way. This is particularly true with the appearance of the ever wonderful Laverne Cox who plays the role of Deathy, a transgender tattoo artist. What make Weitz’s direction so refreshing is the fact that he allowed Deathy to be a woman. Her character is treated the same as her other female counterparts. Being transgender is an important part of her identity, much as Ellie’s lesbianism is important to her identity, but this does not define these characters. We leave the theater thinking about the characters in more specific and personal terms than just gender identity or sexual orientation.

Weitz had a lot of important things to say with this film and he articulates them wonderfully. He explores a day in the lives of two women, during which one of the most terrifying things that can happen has happened. A teenage girl is with-child and has no money or financial support. What Sage does have is the support of the women in her life. On their quest to find finances for Sages abortion, the characters gain more than just dollars and cents. Though Sage has terminated a pregnancy her connection with her family grows ever stronger through the experience, making Grandma is a compelling film that will continue to fill your thoughts long after you’ve left the theater. 

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