Film Review – Grandma
Are abortion movies a thing now? Called the first “abortion comedy,” Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child dealt with the issue head on, and now another movie, Grandma written and directed by Paul Weitz, takes another straightforward look at a woman choosing to terminate her pregnancy. And it is about darn time too. Whether we like it or not, until all women have access to easily attainable, affordable, and effective birth control, abortion – legal or otherwise – is going to be on the table. It is a part of women’s lives, and regardless if you are pro-choice or no choice, it should be dealt with the same way any other human experience is. Calling any movie an abortion comedy is pretty crass, and neither movie is that. Both are movies about abortion that use comedy as way to convey the humanness of the situation. Grandma starts Lily Tomlin, and if you think a post-menopausal 76 year-old woman can’t be a pertinent part of the conversation regarding choice, you have another think coming.
Elle Reid (Tomlin) is a feminist, a poet, a grump, and currently cash poor. She’s paid off all her debts and cut up her credit cards, which is a great way to control her spending, but not so useful when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) comes looking to borrow $600. Sage is pregnant, and while she eventually wants to have a family, now is not the greatest time. She is still a teenager and has a lot to do before she can support a family. Elle agrees to help her, but she’s got no cash of her own, so she offers to hunt the money down so Sage can make it to her abortion appointment scheduled later that day. Elle and Sage set out together, getting bits and pieces of the funding from various sources. They visit several people from Elle’s past and present – including the woman she just dumped, Olivia (Judy Greer, glorious in one of the worst outfits in movie history) – trying to get the $600 without having to ask Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). She and Elle aren’t exactly estranged, but Judy was always closer to her other mother, Mamma Vi, who passed away a couple of years prior, leaving Elle bereft after a 38 year relationship.
There are a lot of good things about this movie, and most of them revolve around the performances. Lily Tomlin is amazing as Elle. I’ll admit it; I watched the hell out of Grace and Frankie, Netflix’s half-hour comedy starring Tomlin and Jane Fonda. I’m not quite 50 myself, but am starving for good content about older women. Elle is outspoken, difficult, and misanthropic – many things that women are not supposed to be. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass about how people perceive her, and while she does not pass through the story unchanged, she doesn’t lose any of her sharp edges. The writing gives her the space to maintain her integrity, and Tomlin fills her performance with nuance and subtlety. Elle is hurting, but she is not broken. She’s made some difficult decisions in the past, and she stands by them, for good or for ill. Everybody else in this film is just as good. Julia Garner and Marcia Gay Harden knock it out of the park, and why isn’t Judy Greer getting higher profile work? She’s great! Sam Elliott plays one of Elle’s exes and he brings a complexity and depth to the role that makes me wish he was getting bigger roles nowadays as well.
If I have a complaint about this film, and I do, it’s that there were a couple of moments where its pro-choice stance was pretty heavy-handed. When Elle talks about the barbarity of her own illegal abortion back in the day, it’s basically an emphatic underlining of the film’s thesis. I have nothing against a good message film, but I don’t need or want my hand held. But it doesn’t overshadow the compassion Weitz has for his characters and his skill with the story. The relationship between Elle and Sage is the core of the story, and as they go about their day, we see them learn more about each other. At the beginning of the story it seems as if Elle is mostly helping her because she believes that Sage’s right to have an abortion is inviolate, but as she opens up through the film, it becomes clear to all that she loves her granddaughter a great deal and would brave a lot to support her. It’s warm and funny and honestly deals with the lives of women. It’s rare to see that, so if you are inclined to go, please do. I want to see Lily Tomlin do more things like this please.