Wednesday, September 23, 2015

LFF review: Grandma

2015 is shaping up to be one of the biggest years in Lily Tomlin's career.The 76-year-old earned an Emmy-nomination for her starring role alongside Jane Fonda in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie. She is also back on the big screen with Grandma, in which Paul Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) gives her a role perfectly suited to her comedic talents. This is the crowdpleaser that last year's flop Tammy could have been. Tomlin plays Elle, a sassy feminist and poet. She is going through a breakup with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer in yet another thankless "Judy Greer supporting role"), when her granddaughter Saige (Julia Garner) unexpectedly shows up on her doorstep. She needs 600 dollars for an abortion and his afraid to ask her mother.

This plot device has a double function. From a comedy standpoint, it allows the film to turn into a traditional road movie. Elle is broke and, in an attempt to free herself from capitalist pressure, has shredded her credit cards and turned them into a wind chime. So she and Saige drive around in a rusty Dodge Royal (Tomlin's actual car) in search of money. Along the way, they encounter a number of colourful characters and old friends. This is the kind of film the Americans are really good at sometimes: a semi-serious feel-good movie where the characters learn from each other. At 79 minutes, the film is also not a minute too long.

The two lead actors make for a great pairing. Garner does well at playing the straight woman, which allows Tomlin to cut loose at will. Like an older version of Susan Sarandon in Thelma & Louise, she refuses to take shit from anyone. Elle is the cool grandmother we all want - the kind that beats up your loser boyfriend with a hockey stick and steals his weed. Tomlin's comedic timing is impeccable and her performance is a joy to watch.

The supporting cast, most of whom only have one scene to leave their mark, is impressive too. Laverne Cox (from OITNB) and Marcia Gay Harden deliver memorable cameos, but one actor stands out: Sam Elliott and his lovely, lovely, lovely voice. He shows up for ten minutes and manages to be funny, creepy, warm and moving. In an odd awards race, his performance might even receive some attention this winter.

Grandma also delivers a sensitive take on the controversial subject matter of abortion. The film is firmly pro-choice (at one point, there is a clear dig at Juno), but doesn't preach or trivialise the issue (within the confines of mainstream cinema). Weitz makes sure that the audience understands the emotional and physical consequences of Saige's decision. Access and price may be problems, but it is still better than the alternative at the end of the day.

Grandma is a sweet, sensitive and short dramedy with a modern spirit, and Lily Tomlin is a true star. 

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