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Review: Grandma

September 25, 2015

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Grandma PosterFor a progressively minded and refreshingly character driven dramedy, that offsets the laughs with some genuinely moving twinges of bittersweetness, Grandma is surprisingly balanced and often quietly remarkable in its approach to the potentially tricky subject matter of its central story.

Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) is an aging feminist and misanthropic poet, still grieving the relatively recent death of her longtime partner, and struggling to reconcile with her daughter (Marcia Gay Harden).  When the film opens, she has just broken up with her girlfriend (Judy Greer), an event that unwittingly launches her headlong into one of the most eventful days of her life.

Shortly after, her estranged granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her doorstep, needing to borrow over six hundred dollars for an abortion already scheduled that afternoon.  This quest of sorts sends them both on a journey of old friends and past regrets, desperately trying to track down enough money and get to the clinic on time, to terminate the unwanted teen pregnancy.

Wearing a faded denim jacket and beat up old pair of sneakers, Elle Reid is like a walking representation of a bygone era, a product of the 1960s feminist movement, who is admirably unapologetic in her views and demands our respect because of that.  Lily Tomlin brings this woman to irrepressible life, and even the quirkier touches of the character, like the choice to cut up her credit cards and turn them into a wind chime, feel completely authentic because of her captivating and lived in performance.

Julia Garner more than holds her own and shines brightly as the young charge, and the rest of the ensemble cast is equally solid.  Nat Wolff is amusing as the obligatory loser boyfriend, Laverne Cox leaves her mark as a sympathetic tattoo artist, and Judy Greer nicely fleshes out her few scenes as the unfairly dumped girlfriend.  Sam Elliot brings incredible depth to his brief role as a surprising old flame, displaying an entire range of emotion and heartbreaking shared history over the span of only a few minutes, proving that sometimes all you need is a single scene to craft a memorable character.

At just 79 minutes, Grandma is a small film that leaves a big mark, and it’s also writer-director Paul Weitz’s best work since his Oscar-nominated About a Boy in 2002.  But Lily Tomlin is the real star here, bringing biting humour and emotional nuance to the memorable title relation, shining in one of the best roles of her career.  Like the film itself, her performance and character is entertaining and eminently watchable, while also injecting a powerful sense of underlying pathos to the story.

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