Almost, but not quite
Paul Weitz’s Grandma is one of 2015’s many low-key, slice-of-life dramas, appealing to the same mumblecore sensibilities of directors like Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers. It’s a quiet film, and at seventy-five minutes, it’s more like a thought than a feature-length film; with that, here’s a film that’s equal parts tender to its subject matter and entirely reliant on its performances.
The film focuses on Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin), an aging lesbian poet grieving over the loss of her long-term partner when she’s abruptly approached by her eighteen-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who needs $600 for an abortion. The two wind up searching around town, as Elle meets the father of the child, a surly stoner (Nat Wolff), in addition to asking old flames and friends for the money, all while avoiding who should be the key voice in this circumstance – Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s workaholic mother.
Sure, Lily Tomlin resurfaces in Grandma and gives her best performance in years, being a fully commanding screen presence in nearly every scene she’s in (which is nearly every scene in the film), but I feel Julia Garner gives a real showstopping performance here as well. Garner is very nuanced here, echoing a lot of the sentiments and mannerisms a stressed adolescent girl in this situation would. Her performance is on par with Lorelei Linklater’s in Boyhood, as it’s understated and quite a heavy role that is easy to overlook with the plethora of bigger actors and performances all but engulfing her. Then there’s Harden, who is always best when she raises her voice and asserts her character’s ego before everyone else in the film, making for that signature presence in a film that is memorable, even if only in a few scenes.
Grandma, as stated, is a film of performances, and that’s fine, but the subject matter here is ripe for some very strong exploration and, unfortunately, doesn’t deliver adequately as it can. The first issue I take is with the grandma character herself, who just so happens to be an incorruptible progressive lesbian, who reacts to her daughter’s pregnancy as just another bump in the road of her life. As common as this is becoming for the current generation, and maybe even their parents’ generation, to find an elderly woman supporting and embracing those notions is incredibly rare and feels less realistic. With this, the opportunity of detailing the generation gap is woefully missed here, which could’ve made the trip between these characters more strained and reluctant, so at the end of the film, a deeper connection could’ve been more solidified than the sometimes aggravating casualness that burdens the film.
Finally, there’s Weitz’s constant attempt to soften the polarizing subject matter by writing a lot of unsubtle comedic sequences that feel contrived. Consider when Elle takes her granddaughter’s boyfriend’s hockey stick to him in order to bleed him of all the cash he has on him, or the scene in front of the women’s health clinic, which do nothing but add lackluster elements of physicality onto what is a character driven film. While these elements are by no means the coffin sealing nails, they do not help what is still uniformly a low-key film in many respects.
Grandma features solid performances across the board, and given that Weitz directed this film and used all female characters (only two characters are male and they are in and out of the film as quickly as they entered), the humanity and gender respect that carries through the story is something of which to take note. It’s too bad, however, that a few sour and unrealistic attributes wind up distracting from what could’ve been a quietly brilliant and contemplative piece of realistic cinema.