“Grandma’s House is one of the most endearing Christian films made recently”
Grandma’s House‘s biggest truth lies in its tagline: “when life gets you down, only one place lifts you up.” A grandmother’s house is a sanctuary or a safe place to her children, grandchildren, and often the neighborhood children, as well. It’s a home that has a lot of life and experience behind its walls; where you go for the company and dinner, but stay for the years worth of wisdom, and hope one day you’ll become at least half as intelligent as that woman you just spent your time with. No matter what went on with my life, my grandmother always made sure I knew her door was always open for me.
Grandma’s House, a surprising little indie film that turned up in AMC theaters across the United States this weekend, is the product of Kimberley T. Zulkowski and written about the time she lived with her grandmother when her mother was unable to care for her. It recounts the lessons and trials that she experienced while living there, initially viewed as burdens but now viewed as cogent and meaningful musings about love, faith, and behavior. Technically a faith-based film by definition, while the film does become a bit melodramatic and scattershot with all the plot-strands it invites into the premise, it should be known for how it features an all-black cast but doesn’t try to stereotype them into the common tropes we’ve seen for characters of color since the beginning of film.
The film opens with Kimberley’s (Coco Jones) family undergoing a serious identity crisis. Her father has just lost his job and her mother is struggling to pay bills and back to drinking heavy. The final straw for her mother is when her husband winds up becoming drunk and abusive one night, leading Kimberley and her two siblings to go stay under Grandma Margie’s (Loretta Devine) roof. Initial clashes with the stubborn and disobedient Maryland (Paige Hurd), who is also living with Margie, and Margie’s strict set of rules including curfew, no late-night phone-calls, and no unexpected visitors make this seem like the stay from hell until Kimberley starts learning her grandmother’s ways and respecting her house rules.
Numerous subplots involve the ambitious but troubled Izak (Jordan Calloway), who is looking at an admission to USC but can’t shake his gang-ties with his pals. Also trying to rid himself of a violent lifestyle is Uncle Earl (Alex Thomas), who has had difficulty not getting absorbed in it since he got older. Through it all, however, grandma’s house is a sanctuary for this family; Margie cannot stand “chaos” or noise in her home and is easily agitated when her grandkids go against her rules (even if her rules are admittedly not always clear).
Grandma’s House‘s biggest accomplishment is that it desperately doesn’t want to attend to the same slapstick and stigmatized blend of brazen comedy and corny melodrama, which are often found in Tyler Perry’s “Madea” movies. I was worried Zulkowski would turn the Grandma Margie character into a walking caricature; a loud, obnoxious buffoon who couldn’t say one word without shouting and being the epitome of a cheap and facile stereotype. To my surprise, Zulkowski keeps most of her characters grounded in reality and tenderness, but most importantly, realism. Loretta Devine also aids in humanizing Margie into a warm but firm character that develops nicely over the course of the film.
The problems with Grandma’s House aren’t the obvious sermonizing, which, to Zulkowski’s credit once again, is competently written and woven into the storyline rather than feeling like a gratuitous plug for the Bible, but with the way Zulkowski juggles too many characters and doesn’t handle their stories as meaningfully as she could. At only ninety-two minutes, there’s a lot of ground to cover and it isn’t always covered as neatly as it could be, largely because a lot of plot-strands are introduced and many characters work to muddle the focus. The centrality here is Kimberley and Margie, but sometimes that’s forgotten with all the detouring the screenwriting takes to focus on other characters.
But I would at least go as far as to say Grandma’s House is one of the most endearing Christian films made recently because it focuses on the people that believe in what they preach and how they effectively communicate and talk with one another about their faith. That’s the big picture of the film instead of a theatrical court trial about alleged religious persecution, a sloppily written and unabashedly corny film about the power of prayer, and the story of a pastor-turned-wrestler. Grandma’s House dials back all the theatrics to give a simple and thoughtful film that, through its shortcomings, rises above and tells a thoughtful story that’s easy to appreciate.