Director: Paul Weitz
Major Players: Lily Tomlin, Marcia Gay Harden, Julia Garner, Sam Elliott
Out Of Five: Four
Strong women, as we all know, is one of the main themes at this year’s London Film Festival. Suffragette has had the lion’s share of attention so far and Scott Haynes’ much-anticipated Carol is still to come. But, for now, let me introduce you to Grandma…….
The grandma in question is Elle (Lily Tomlin), a semi-retired poet in her seventies who’s reeling from a double emotional hammer blow: the death of her long term partner and a subsequent split with her much shorter term girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer). Then granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) turns up on her doorstep with a problem than only $600 can fix. But Elle’s paid off all her debts and cut up her credit cards to make a wind chime, so the two have to take to the road to find the cash.
And that makes it a road movie. But this is no Thelma and Louise. It all takes place in just one day and the pair don’t travel very far from home, making it a tight, disciplined piece of film making. The timescale keeps it right on track and there’s no room here for flabby plotting or rambling dialogue. Weitz has kept an equally tight rein on his characters: they all have a definite purpose, and that even included one unfortunate restaurant customer desperate for hot sauce to go with her food!
It is, however, Elle’s movie from beginning to end. Calling her cranky is putting it mildly, but there’s a reason and it’s called grief. She’s still suffering from the death of her long-term partner, whose name is tattooed on her wrist as a constant reminder, so her acid – and often foul – tongue is a defence mechanism designed to keep the world at bay. She doesn’t care what people think of her or of what she says and certainly isn’t inclined to pipe down in the coffee shop when discussing – very loudly! – why Sage needs the money. Yet, for all that anger, she will still protect her granddaughter with her last breath.
Weitz wrote the script “hearing Lily’s (Tomlin) voice” and, boy, does it show! The actress has always been something of a scene stealer, but this puts her well and truly in the spotlight, alternating between anger and contempt but also displaying real compassion and, as the film progresses, her softer side, which gradually catches up with her and everybody else.
This, however, is no one-woman show. Tomlin is easily matched by a stand-out performance from Sam Elliott as one of the potential sources of money. With that characteristic voice from the depths of his boots, he lives in a house festooned with photographs of all his previous wives and children, who are numbered rather than named. The reason for this becomes clear as his story unfolds before us – and it gets more and more tragic. It all ends in tears in Elliott’s eyes as he slams the door and walks away. Lumps in the throat all round.
Weitz has built a simple but captivating story, peppered it with great gags and populated it with well-rounded figures, so the actors genuinely have the chance to show what they can do. And, as director, he’s allowed them to do just that. He also makes elegant use of “the slow reveal” both in the plot and characters. Elle’s daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), gets a huge build-up, frequently talked about in less than positive terms by both her daughter and mother so that, by the time she arrives on screen, we feel we know her already.
And the film does something more in its portrayal of older people. There’s none of the cosiness of The Best Exotic and certainly none of the patronising mush on show in Nancy Meyer’s The Intern, released this week. The fact that Elle and her contemporaries are older isn’t a label to hang around their necks, it’s just another facet of their characters and they’re all the richer for it. Like Bette Davis said, “old age is no place for sissies.”
Grandma is funny, tart, sweet and tragic, full of believable characters, all resplendent in their flaws. And that’s what makes it a really grown up film.
Grandma was screened at the London Film Festival and goes on general release around the UK on 11 December.