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.