“Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion in this town?” That’s the problem facing Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) in the film, Grandma, when her 18-year old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up on her doorstep. Out of the blue. Pregnant. Broke. Desperate. An abortion costs a whopping $630, and Sage needs the money before the end of the day, in order to make the only clinic appointment available for some time. The problem is that Elle (a famous lesbian, feminist poet) has just cleared her debt, and turned her credit cards into a wind chime decorating her porch. Obviously there is no other choice but to set out in Elle’s vintage Dodge Royal and hit up her friends and acquaintances for money.
The quest takes them both on a day-long journey with memories that will last them a lifetime. The duo first visits Sage’s “kind-of” boyfriend, Cam (Natt Wolff), who had promised to help get the money. One of the best scenes in the film sees Elle beating up Cam with his own hockey stick in reaction to the stonehead’s lackadaisical attitude towards taking responsibility.
Abortion is a divisive topic, particularly in the United States right now. But while this is the plot device that carries the story, the film is about much more than that. Elle and Sage learn about each other, examine their past mistakes, and celebrate their personal triumphs. Elle is forced to face the pain of losing her long-time partner, Violet, while Sage must confront her strained relationship with her highly-strung mother and successful businesswoman, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).
Grandma is reminiscent of other oddball indie films about physical and personal journeys, like Paper Towns, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or Juno. Despite dealing with something that is intensely emotive – reproductive rights – the film is surprisingly ‘feel-good’, perhaps because it doesn’t try to be preachy, judgmental, or prescriptive. The plot is pro-choice but the story is not so much about abortion as it is about familial relationships, loss, regrets, and redemption.
As the day progresses, scenes in which Elle wreaks havoc (such as throwing a hilarious tantrum in a coffee shop which she discovers has replaced a much cheaper abortion clinic) turn to ones that highlight a life that has seen much heartache. One of the people she asks for cash is a former lover Karl (Sam Elliot). There is immense tenderness and anguish in the way they recall the damage they did to each other decades ago, and how past decisions resonate forever.
Lily Tomlin is superb and shows why she is a nonpareil actress. Elle is no ordinary grandmother. She is incorrigible, grouchy, and acerbically outspoken, but her love for Sage is incomparable. Her humour is caustic, but it’s clear there is pain and deep sorrow just beneath the surface. Sage is a break-out role for Julia Garner, one she plays with finesse. Marcia Gay Harden is one of those annoying “I’m perfect so you should be too”-kind of mothers. Also look out for a cameo by Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, as a tattoo artist called “Deathy”.
Elle’s cutting dialogue makes the story come across as quirky and lighthearted, and yet, it has an emotional force that lingers long after the credits have finished rolling. Grandma is a stunning character study that is sharp, eloquent, and beautifully authentic.
Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Sam Elliot, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliot, Laverne Cox
Rating: 4½ out of 5
SA release date: 13 November 2015