Lily Tomlin: Not Your Typical Grandma

Paul Weitz's new film achieves what few movies have before: It assumes that a woman can be old and interesting at the same time.

Sundance Institute
Do a search for “Grandma” on Google Images, and you’ll be greeted with row after row of older women—almost all of them be-spectacled, almost all of them be-halo-ed in a puff of white hair, almost all of them smiling, beatifically and benignly. “Grandma” may be, technically, a relationship rather than a description, but we have, collectively, our assumptions about what the person who occupies that role is like: She is probably sweet. She is probably docile. She’d probably really love to bake you some cookies. She is “Grandma,” and that—not just according to Google, but according to movies and novels and comic strips and TV shows, across the culture, and with very little exception—is her most relevant feature.
Not so Grandma’s Elle Reid, who manages to be both a grandmother and a complicated human at—against all odds—the same time. Elle (Lily Tomlin, in a performance that is, oddly and tellingly, a breakout) is loud and opinionated and stubborn and ornery and angry. (“Mom says that you’re philanthropic,” her granddaughter, Sage, tells her. She quickly corrects herself. “I mean, misanthropic.”) A poet who was renowned in the 1970s and who has ridden her success to a life of academia-adjacent bohemianism—Adrienne Rich seems to have been a rough model—Elle is also a resolute feminist who has a first edition of The Feminine Mystique that she actually reads. She is quick with casual insults (“your face looks like an armpit,” she informs a young man who has displeased her), and even quicker with deeper ones. (“You were a footnote,” she spits at her girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), while breaking up with her in the first scenes of the film.) And that’s largely because, a year and a half after her partner of 38 years, Violet, died of an unnamed illness, Elle is also grieving and hurting and lost. The pain—the phantom limb of a lost love—permeates everything she does, whether the thing is breaking up with Olivia or coming to terms with long-held family secrets or helping her teenage granddaughter to get an abortion.
Grandma—written and directed by Paul Weitz, whose resume includes such diverse pictures as About a Boy, In Good Company, Little Fockers, and American Pie—follows a single day in the life of Elle, her daughter, and her granddaughter. Things begin in the morning, when Elle is interrupted from the quietly misanthropic day she had planned for herself by Sage—who is 18 and pregnant and desperate to not be—knocking on her door. Her granddaughter (Julia Garner, imbuing her character with a subtle wisdom that fits the name) has made an appointment at a nearby abortion clinic. For 5:45 that evening. Her boyfriend has failed to get the money—$630—he had promised to scrounge up to cover the cost of the procedure. Being broke and also hoping to keep her situation a secret from her domineering mother, Sage turns to her decidedly non-grandmotherly grandmother for the money, and for more general support.
The only (well, the other) problem? Elle has recently paid off her debts, cutting up her credit cards in a symbolic attempt to simplify her life. So she, too, is broke. But she’s also determined to help Sage. And so the two set out on a road trip that’s a little bit Terms of Endearment and a little bit Thelma and Louise. They encounter, in their quest to gather the $630 before 5:45, a series of people who double as specters from Elle’s life—making the whole thing also just a teeny bit Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
Which sounds pretty terrible, right, plot-wise? Cliched, cloying, smug, forced, generally bizarre? And it so easily could have been all of those things. The small miracle of Grandma, though, is that the film is, in the end, none of them. It’s a character study and morality play and bildungsroman, subtly executed and lovingly performed. The characters who could all veer into empty tropes (the aging lesbian! the cold, career-driven mother! the irresponsible #teen!) pulse, in the end, with quirky humanity. They’re given room, in the space of a single day, to live and breathe and grow. Judy Reid (Marcia Gay Harden), the daughter Elle raised with Violet, may be introduced to viewers as an over-caffeinated executive who works at a treadmill desk and goes through assistants as if they were toothbrushes, but she grows. Sage may pivot, convincingly, between adolescent meekness and adolescent arrogance; she, too, grows. Deciding not to become a mother, for her, itself confers a kind of maturity.
But the character who grows the most in all this is the one who, per the traditional conventions of the pop-cultured Grandma, has no growing left to do. This is Elle’s story, her (literal) coming-of-age tale. Grandma, indeed, insistently disentangles “age” from “maturity,” and that distinction finds Elle, with seven decades of living under her belt, engaged in stereotypically young-person activities: getting a tattoo (from her friend Deathy, played by the wonderful Laverne Cox), beating up the kid who got her granddaughter pregnant, getting punched in the face by a 5-year-old outside of an abortion clinic. It finds her throwing tantrums and testing her limits and vacillating unpredictably between sweetness and self-absorption.
You get the sense that Violet wasn’t just Elle’s partner, but a parental influence—stabilizing, calming, enabling—and that, in her absence, Elle has reverted to a kind of late-life adolescence. Elle herself is only partially aware of this. I like being old,” she muses. “Young people are stupid.”
Elle’s feminism, too, is young. Her icons are Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir—she pronounces their names with reverence and love and, in Beauvoir’s case, an exaggeratedly guttural “r”—and she seems baffled that their iconography could have dissipated in the years between her youth and her granddaughter’s. “You don't know The Feminine Mystique?” Elle asks Sage, mystified and horrified. Her granddaughter replies, “Mystique is a character in X-Men.”
I won’t spoil anything more, but it’s enough to say that the family road trip ends, in its way, happily. It ends, maybe more to the point, humanly. Grandma doesn’t offer an overt message about the hot-button politics inherent in its plot—about same-sex partnerships, about women’s reproductive rights, about feminism—so much as it offers a gentle appreciation for political ideas as infrastructures of people’s lives. It refuses to judge its characters, and it refuses to reduce them to caricature. Elle is a lesbian; that is not all she is. She is a poet; that is not all she is. She is a feminist; that is not all she is. She is a senior; that is not all she is.
And she is, yes, a grandmother. That, too, is not all.