Directed by Paul Weitz
Directed by Paul Weitz, “Grandma” follows a day in the life of Elle (Lily Tomlin), an aging, misanthropic poet, when her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) unexpectedly shows up in need of money. Elle is estranged from Sage’s mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), which has impacted her relationship with her granddaughter. Nevertheless, the duo embarks on a comedic quest to obtain the needed cash. Visits with Elle’s old friends and former lovers unearth old secrets along the way.
The film is heavily focused on Elle’s character, and Tomlin’s performance makes this an excellent decision. Elle’s sharp-tongued exchanges with those around her are unexpected and wonderful, especially her hilariously heated confrontation with Sage’s boyfriend, Cam (Nat Wolff). There is a depth to her performance that goes beyond playing someone’s grandmother who swears at everyone she meets, and 76-year-old Tomlin perfectly balances out comic tirades and painfully emotional moments. The vitality present in Tomlin’s acting and in her character proves that her age is truly nothing but a number. Her wounded humanity keeps her from being a caricature, although for a poet and academic, she often seems rather ineloquent. Elle is an extremely unusual protagonist — it is rare to see films made about grandmothers, but even rarer when that grandmother is more Larry David than Betty White — and seeing her story told on screen is refreshing.
Garner’s Sage is a good foil to Elle — she is young, inexperienced and apologetic, everything that Elle is not. The filial relationships presented in the film are unusual because they are strained and distant, but it’s clear that Elle’s love and concern for Sage motivates her to help her granddaughter, especially since they are both more insecure than they would like to admit. Sage develops more than Elle throughout the film, and is a compelling and complex teenager. One of the film’s greatest successes is showing Elle and Sage as people with dimension rather than playing up some of their traits and turning them into stock characters. Their dynamic is mature but not unbelievably so, and a more traditional bond between grandmother and granddaughter is at the core of their relationship.
Besides Tomlin’s strong presence, however, “Grandma” is fairly ordinary. Weitz’s screenplay has some stellar moments, but it does not keep up the pace between big moments of comedy and drama, and certain scenes come across as nothing more than filler meant to pad the time. The film is divided up into smaller chapters with one-word titles, which is unnecessary considering it is not composed of true vignettes and doesn’t need the extra emphasis to connect scenes together. The screenplay is exposition-heavy, as many of the events referenced take place in the past, a technique better suited to the stage than the screen. This exposition leaves ambiguity in Elle’s interactions with old acquaintances, and because Elle and Sage visit so many different people, viewers only receive a basic recap of events without truly processing how they have made Elle who she is today. While some of these detours add color to the film, most simply present information that the audience must process on its own.
“Grandma” is shot and edited rather simply, emphasizing characters and story over style. The film relies on language rather than spectacle, though there are times where the dialogue and acting simply aren’t enough. “Grandma” is a challenging and worthwhile story to tell, but the execution does not always do it justice. The film’s pace often feels less urgent than it should — while “Grandma” is no action movie, Elle and Sage desperately need to get their money and Elle’s reminiscing frequently obscures that objective.
“Grandma” is an interesting portrait piece, but it falls short of its full storytelling potential. There are times that the plot is stretched rather thin, and at certain points the film’s ambiguity seems less deliberate and more like it’s struggling to make the characters’ intentions clear. Though it’s a bit rough around the edges, superb acting from the film’s leads makes it worth watching.