Who doesn’t love an acting comeback? Stars from the old days who vanish from the limelight for years, only to return in a blaze of glory with one of their finest performances. Lily Tomlin’s last leading film role was in 1988, starring alongside Bette Midler in Big Business. In recent years, she’s never been too far away, taking many small roles in films and bigger roles on TV such as a titular role in Netflix’s Grace & Frankie. But now, 27 years since her last, she’s back to take the lead in a motion picture. This is Grandma.
Shot in just 19 days with a budget of $600 thousand and out now on DVD, Grandma is a wonderfully real and human drama. Divided over six real-time chapters, the film follows Elle (Lily Tomlin) as she embarks on a road trip to scramble $630 to pay for an abortion for her young granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who joins her on the journey. Along the way, they confront past demons and find themselves. Yes, it’s a fairly standard road trip/self-discovery tale. But thanks to incredible direction & writing from Paul Weitz and superb performances from the entire cast, Grandma is more than meets the eye.
Firstly, we must discuss Lily Tomlin’s performance as Elle. Bringing us her first leading role in 27 years, the film completely belongs to her. Tomlin steals every scene she’s in – which is basically the entire film. Elle is an ageing poet/scholar, struggling to cope with the recent death of her long-term life partner - which causes the demise of her new 4-month relationship with Olivia (Judy Greer), a young admirer of her work. Tomlin portrays Elle as a streetwise and strong woman but subtly shows cracks, through which you can see a loneliness and vulnerability that makes the bitter Elle more sympathetic than she first appears. Tomlin was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance here and should have won, but she was up against Jennifer Lawrence – and everybody knows, Jennifer Lawrence must win every award she’s nominated for. It’s the rules of Hollywood.
But despite this being Tomlin’s film through-and-through, the rest of the cast shine too. Julia Garner is brilliant as the young pregnant Sage who turns to her savvy grandma for help. Judy Greer is fantastic as Olivia – bringing her best performance yet in fact, while Sam Elliott and Marcia Gay Harden show up with great little performances. It’s very much an ensemble piece, but even with such incredible work from the cast, Grandma has a lot of other things going for it too.
The pacing and length of Grandma are perhaps its finest asset, other than Tomlin. Clocking in at just 74 minutes, the film is a lot shorter than your average drama of this sort. But taking place in real-time (for the most part), this means that not once does the film feel rushed. Quite the contrary, Grandma stuffs a lot into its short runtime and feels longer than it is. Taking place in six chapters, the film’s narrative structure is very simple. Elle and Sage’s journey primarily consists of them visiting Elle’s old friends and acquaintances and trying to get money Elle is owed, or sell things, or call in favours. Joel P. West’s string-filled score adds a sophisticated charm to the tale while the shaky cinematography brings a fly-on-the-wall realism that makes Grandma feel like a documentary.
Director and writer Paul Weitz doesn’t exactly have a golden filmography behind him to this point. With films like American Dreamz, Cirque du Freak and Little Fockers under his belt, I wasn’t expecting much when I saw his name attached to Grandma. But this is without a doubt his best work yet (although it hasn’t really got much competition) and hopefully a good indication of what’s to come from him. But I suppose we can’t be too critical of his early years. He was one of the writers of Antz, after all. Anyway, Grandma is a wonderful little film. There’s very little to fault with it. In its simplicity lies its charm, the short runtime means no filler and boring padding, the direction and writing is top-notch, the performances are all brilliant – Grandma is just great. Give it a visit.
Grandma is a surprising little gem that deserves your time. And hey, it’s only 74 minutes. 5/5.
Grandma at CeX
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