SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD
“Grandma” opens on a break-up. Reeling from the loss of her partner of many decades, Elle (Lily Tomlin) lashes out at her younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). She says their four months together meant “nothing.” She calls her “a footnote.” She all but slaps her across the face.
Yet the minute Olivia walks out the door, Elle bursts into tears. Her measured tone and crass insults reveal themselves as a bluff: she wears and uses them as a weapon-armor hybrid, hurling them out before retrieving them as if they’re boomerangs. You can’t hurt her, the sting of her words implies. But she can hurt you.
Elle Reid, or “Grandma,” feels like the type of character Tomlin should have played by now. She comes equipped with the zingers that Tomlin can spout in her sleep, but she’s imbued with a depth that the actress rarely gets to dig into. It’s to the film’s great benefit that Tomlin is the face, soul and beating heart of “Grandma,” a lightly funny and razor-sharp character study that builds with emotional force.
After Elle kicks her girlfriend out, she is left alone – estranged from her daughter, and with only $42 to her name – to grieve over her lost loves. But her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) abruptly shows up pregnant, in need of $630 for an abortion. Sage’s mom can’t – or shouldn’t – know about all this, and Elle, wise ol’ grandma that she is, considers herself an important companion for a day of money-begging and major life decisions.
Their journey evolves into a reckoning for Elle, as she revisits slivers of her past to find someone, anyone, to help her granddaughter out. Initially, as they go from place to place, the scenarios play out no less broad than a typical Tomlin vehicle. Elle acts out in a coffee shop after being told she’s causing a disruption; she plays it amusingly slick at a tattoo parlor, where she meets up with an old friend (played well by Laverne Cox) who owes her some money.
Whenever “Grandma” looks to be running the risk of caricature, however, Weitz rolls up his sleeves to reveal another trick. As with his opening scene, the writer-director presents his protagonist’s armor with greater velocity as its effectiveness weakens.
The script is confident. Elle’s past is pieced together with patient rigor, as in every scene we learn another detail or two about this raging, grieving “Grandma.” She meets up with an old flame from 40 years ago (played by Sam Elliot); she broke his heart on her path to self-discovery, and he carries that pain with reluctant resentment in their reunion. She later reunites with Olivia, sparring with her once more in her place of work; Elle cruelly admits to having “loved loving” her before another barrage of attacks.
In confronting the father of Sage’s baby, Elle uses her anger to better use, viscerally condemning his refusal to take responsibility. Each vignette in “Grandma” peels back a layer, with Elle – and Tomlin – emerging rawer, more flawed but no less sympathetic.
The set-up gives great actors such as Elliot, Greer and Cox worthy scenes to chew on. They work with the script to craft defined characters in an exceedingly tight timeframe. Tomlin, at the film’s center, powerfully guides the film into richer, more complex territory.
It’s also nice to see Weitz make a good movie. Since his terrific breakout “About a Boy,” the Oscar nominee has churned out a series of misfires: the toothless “Admission,” the maudlin “Being Flynn,” the legitimately pathetic “Little Fockers.” With “Grandma,” he captures reality with the degrees of wit and intelligence that were entirely absent over the last decade of his filmography.
And yet Weitz doesn’t entirely escape his shadow. His direction, like so many of his recent films, is frustratingly conventional. Each scene lands with resonance individually, but they’re too consecutive, too neatly feeding into the next. There isn’t enough breathing room. Weitz could simply sit back and allow us to rest with Elle and Sage in reflection – to feel them and the emotional impact of their various encounters – but we can never bask in that experience. His method lacks flow.
This limits Sage as a character, which in turn limits “Grandma” as a film overall. Each of Elle’s reunions is viewed through her granddaughter’s eyes, but they remain focused on “Grandma” herself. Weitz fails to convey a strong sense of their relationship, or of Sage’s motivations as a character, by neglecting to spend much time beyond these scenes.
In an explosive performance, Marcia Gay Harden bursts into the third act as Judy, Sage’s mother and Elle’s daughter. She fits into the puzzle neatly, as far as Elle is concerned – she shares her mother’s bottled-up fury but channels it differently, adding new dimensions to Elle’s characterization accordingly. That Judy’s entrance adds so little to Sage, conversely, speaks volumes. “Grandma” finishes as a sturdy, poignant and refreshingly complex character study. But there’s no denying the potential was there for something greater.
Now playing at Burns Court Cinemas.