72 min., rated R.
Back to honing character-rich films, director Paul Weitz wrote indie dramedy "Grandma" specifically for Lily Tomlin, whom he worked with in 2013's neither-here-nor-there Tina Fey-Paul Rudd vehicle "Admission," and here, she gets a long-time-coming career rebirth. Whatever the reason, it's almost inexcusable that Lily Tomlin hasn't had a lead role since 1988's "Big Business"—that's twenty-seven years ago and that was a co-lead opposite Bette Midler—and now, at 75 years old, Tomlin essays a role in which she's always spryly on point. The film only seems slight, being shot on a small-scale $600,000 budget and lasting a slender, episodic 72 minutes that manages to still be enough time to tell a cohesive story. "Grandma" just happens to be short and sweet, and for that matter, smartly acerbic and gently human, too.
Back in the 1970s, Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) was a poet, but she hasn't written much since. A year and a half after the death of her lovely wife of thirty-eight years, she drives away younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), calling her "a footnote" and telling her to leave her key. That same day, Elle's 16-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) stops by and cuts to the chase — she's pregnant and needs $630 for an abortion before her appointment scheduled at 5:30 p.m. that afternoon. Elle has $47 to her name and cut up all of her credit cards for a wind chime, so she doesn't have it, but she is willing to get out her 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer (that's Tomlin's own car) and hit the road to get the money. Throughout the day with Olivia riding shotgun, Elle visits estranged people from her past, hoping someone out there will lend them the money.
Written and directed by Paul Weitz, "Grandma" could have been played for sitcom-styled wackiness, but that is never the case. A simple intergenerational road movie and a sensitively felt warts-and-all character study with a refreshing worldview and a feminist, pro-choice slant that never goes preachy, the film is as no-nonsense as Elle herself. Tight without being contrived, the film is mostly about the encounters Elle and Sage have throughout one afternoon, but where each one of their stops go is surprising and make an impression. Elle is not a caricature written to lob laugh lines, but she's naturally funny as a feisty, prickly woman with enough years of experience that she get a free pass for being so prideful and stuck in her ways. She is also not up with the times and doesn't care. She will speak her mind and doesn't care. When Elle gets her and Sage kicked out of a coffee shop by the manager (John Cho) for speaking too loudly about abortion, she mocks the only two "Ozzie and Harriet"-looking patrons in the joint and drips her drip coffee on their way out. Beyond her often aggressive exterior, Elle's love and selflessness shine through with her time spent with her granddaughter. Lily Tomlin is outstanding here, running with this character and upending the crusty old granny cliché with spirit and layers that are as comic as they are tragic and purely authentic. Julia Garner, who can't help but have a pixie quality with her blonde curls whenever she's onscreen, holds her own opposite her robust, seasoned co-star. Painting Sage as a teenage girl who has self-respect but might have had poor judgment by getting pregnant when she wasn't ready, she gives an understatedly winning performance.
Other supporting roles inform the viewer about Elle and give a plethora of veteran thespians room to work. After a summer of being thanklessly cast and mostly wasted threefold, the immeasurably wonderful Judy Greer gets an actual character to play as Elle's recent ex Olivia. As Elle's daughter Judy, a business woman with a treadmill at her desk, Marcia Gay Harden finds humanity in a character who could've easily been written as a humorless, one-note harpy. As Karl, Elle's old flame who's willing to help her out and finds time to smoke one more joint with her, Sam Elliott manages to make 71 years old look sexy and brings a whole history of heartache between Karl and Elle that's telling in only roughly ten minutes tops. Nat Wolff, as Sage's worthless boyfriend Cam who's put in his place with his own hockey stick; Laverne Cox (Netflix's "Orange is the New Black"), as tattoo artist Deathy who doesn't have the money she owes Elle but can give her a new tat; and the late Elizabeth Peňa, as a bookstore/cafe owner to whom Elle tries selling her first edition books, stop by for a few minutes, too. Finally, Colleen Camp has a very brief if funny bit to play as a cafe customer who can't seem to get the hot sauce she requested.
With "Grandma," poignancy and laughs come in a small package. If there should be any imperfections, the film isn't terribly interesting on a technical level, but it's modestly shot with a warmly appealing glow by cinematographer Tobia Datum. Never a calculated awards-time vehicle for its screen veteran or a case of boomer bait, this satisfying little end-of-the-summer treat deservedly gives Lily Tomlin a chance to lead a film with a worldly, tart-mouthed, fully formed character and plenty of colors to play. For sure, she belongs on a short list for awards noteworthiness if awards mean anything.
Grade: B +