Sunday, September 20, 2015

Movie Review: "Grandma" (2015)

© Sony Pictures Classics

Coming a bit out of nowhere, a lot of attention is being paid this little movie, an unexpected sleeper of the late summer that isn't interested in style, but instead, aims for substance. Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Grandma has roughly 10 people in it, and 8 of them are women. Moreover, most of them are over 40 and the subject matter is wholly feminine. It certainly has a lot of ammunition in its clip to be preachy and political, but writer/director Paul Weitz smartly decided to keep it simple and make it all about the characters and the events of a single, unassuming day.

Elle (Lily Tomlin) is a recently unemployed professor and once semi-lauded poet. Having broken up with her much younger girlfriend of four months, Olivia (Judy Greer), her self-important moping is interrupted by a knock at the door. Turns out, her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), is pregnant and needs $630 for an abortion, all before her afternoon appointment. The anti-establishment Elle, however, is broke and without any credit cards, so the two hop in the car to hit up everyone Elle knows who might be willing to help, all to avoid going to the one person Sage is scared to see: her mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden).

Throughout their 8-hour journey, Elle can't help but showcase her combative and short-fused temper. "You have an anger problem," Sage says. "No, I have an asshole problem," Elle responds. "When people are assholes, I get angry." The irony and hypocrisy of this isn't lost on either of them, since Elle's Asshole Flag is flying a full-mast, pretty perpetually these days. Tomlin is able to be simultaneously comedic and dramatic, and it is her rare gift as an actress. Where the other characters in this film lack emotional depth (Garner has her moments, but just can't keep up with her screen partner), Tomlin has more than enough to make up for them.

Harden's role as Sage's frightening, corporate mother is brief, but insightful, and many of the most human moments stem from her outbursts. Greer's Olivia could easily have been an afterthought, shuffled off screen in the first 5 minutes, but Weitz knew better and brought the story back around to her again, not once but twice. Seeing Greer in a role as calm and normal as this one is the best way to see her. She also has lots of mature, romantic chemistry with Tomlin, which I didn't expect. The dynamic between every one of these women certainly suggests the uselessness and frivolity of men, which was pure delight.

Beyond all the hijinks and desperation, the real meat—or heart—of the story is a story you don't get to see. It's the story of Elle and her 38-year relationship with Violet, Sage's other grandmother. Weitz makes no efforts to introduce Violet to us. She's the past, and Elle clearly doesn't want to talk about the past, no matter how much she's still living in it. But what's also clear is that Elle was probably a better person with Violet by her side. Perhaps the vitriol was stemmed a bit, or maybe Violet made Elle see the better in people. Because the Elle we see now is unapologetic in her aggression and willingness to pick a fight. Her struggle to overcome her pride takes precedence over all of the rest.

This movie didn't stir my emotions unexpectedly, but it wasn't as docile as I'd anticipated. The trailer suggested a hollow, neutered version of the actual plot and should be avoided at all costs for fear of turning you off to this movie completely. There is a lot more here to be enjoyed than the concept of a foul-mouthed Grandma making a ruckus and pouring coffee over people. Grandma is nothing ground-breaking, but that's sort of what makes it so special. It's not trying to be.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

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