"Grandma" is Lily Tomlin's tour de force... a tour through the culture wars with the force of a tough, canny veteran. Tomlin has never been better as the bitter, fiercely loyal, vulnerably sentimental matriarch Elle who will do almost anything to rescue her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner).
On the heels of Tomlin's break-up of her 4 month relationship with the much younger Olivia (Judy Greer), Sage shows up on her doorstep needing money for an abortion she has scheduled for later that day. "Grandma" is the story of Elle's struggle to help her granddaughter even if it means a painful odyssey through the wreckage of relationships past.
Elle is broke. She lives on the déclassé margins, a poet whose academic career reached high water mark as poet in residence at UC Santa Cruz. In a characteristic act of defiance cum self destruction, she has cut up her credit cards. Now she needs them!
The first stop in abortion fund raising is a visit to old friend tattoo artist Deathy (transgender actress Laverne Cox). Deathy has nothing to give her but a free tattoo and abundant good will. Sisterhood is strong, but won't pay the bills. Elle's tattoos bracket her relationships: one of her deceased, sainted 37 year partner Vi and another of most recent successor Olivia.
When she tries to pedal her first edition collection of feminist literature to old friend Coffee Shop Carla, Elle's barely sealed emotional baggage bursts open. Instead of raising money, she raises anger.
She fares no better when trying desperately to tap old flame Sam Elliott. In a scene which sears with unresolved passion, Elliott and Tomlin show just how care doesn't necessarily lead to commitment. It does demonstrate how two talented veterans can seize and elevate a brief scene to encompass complex lives and issues.
Sprinkled in the margins between such heartfelt encounters are deft comic jabs at Sage's boyfriend, anti-abortion clinic demonstrators and reflexively at Elle herself.
The path of resolution leads inexorably to the provider of last resort . . . Elle's daughter and Sage's feared mother . . . the high powered, short fused Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Judy not only provides a worthy, plausible dues et machina, but a superb lesson in the parameters of tough love. For all the characters' fulminating about good and bad parenting, the toll of Judy's professional success and the terrible tenacity of Tomlin, love shines through. The bridge between Elle, Judy and Sage is a reflection of more than inspired casting. It is the realization of progressive values of the good fight in the culture wars . . .the meaning of family and love.
Writer/Director Paul Weitz is no stranger to either the culture wars or issues of family and love. His work as both writer and director brought Nick Hornby's "About a Boy" to the screen as a bittersweet classic exploration of family relationships. "American Pie," "Admission," "Little Fockers" and the under appreciated "American Dreamz" were smart and funny, with more than a dash of social commentary. In "Grandma," he has drawn together all strains to give us an unforgettable lesson in what constitutes family. Lily Tomlin's award worthy performance realizes these elements as the aging baby boomer "Grandma."
Oh what sharp claws you have Grandma . . . But oh, what a big heart!