BFI London Film Festival: Grandma

Directed by Paul Weitz

Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, John Cho and Sam Elliott

by Joanna Orland

We first meet Elle (Tomlin) as she is breaking up with her younger girlfriend Olivia (Greer), subtly revealing the heartache she still feels after losing her partner Violet after 38 years of companionship.  Elle’s grieving and nostalgia are put on hold as her teenage granddaughter Sage arrives on her doorstep, desperate for her grandmother’s help in gathering the funds she needs to have an abortion.  As Elle herself has no money, and both are terrified of Sage’s mother, so begins a grandmother / granddaughter adventure as they seek to collect enough money before Sage’s appointment later that afternoon.

While a funny film due to Tomlin’s acerbic and forthright performance, as well as Marcia Gay Harden’s scene-stealking turn as Sage’s mother Judy, Grandma also has a lot of heart.  A character study as much as a narrative, Tomlin’s portrayal of Elle depicts a deep-rooted sorrow behind her comedic delivery, making this a gripping and highly empathetic watch.  Whether or not Elle was specifically written for Tomlin or if the actress was given free reign to improvise, she absolutely owns this role.

The characters Elle and Sage meet along the way each bring something very special to this film.  The two to note are Sam Elliott as her former husband Karl, and Marcia Gay Harden as Judy.  Elliott is commanding in any role he takes on, but has a vulnerability as Karl that is not usually associated with the actor.  He is a scorned and jilted husband, suppressing over thirty years of bitterness towards his ex-wife Elle who left him to realize her lesbian sexuality.  These are the most touching and powerful scenes in this film.

While the scenes with Karl are sentimental from the start, Gay Harden’s entrance is the funniest in the film.  She even overshadows the brilliant Tomlin in her angry energy to get the biggest laughs of Grandma.  While at first providing some serious comic relief, Gay Harden’s role as Judy is not a two-dimensional one.  The complex relationship between a mother, daughter and granddaughter is explored in a beautiful way, providing the true heart of this film.


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