Grandma is a modest, old-fashioned star vehicle, built to show off the talents of and pay warm homage to a veteran movie star. Paul Weitz (About a Boy, The Golden Compass, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) wrote and directed the movie specifically for Lily Tomlin, who is playing a fictional character intended to reflect well-known personal and professional facets of her life: Her penchant for balancing poignant drama with acidic comedy, her intelligence, her feminism and her long relationship with the writer-producer Jane Wagner (they’ve been a couple since the early 1970s).
The only thing Tomlin doesn’t get to do in Grandma is sing. She plays Elle, a prickly 70-something who has just dumped her much-younger girlfriend (Judy Greer) with a preemptive strike of cruelty. “You’re a footnote,” Elle snaps at her, trying to hurt her partner bad enough to make her leave, although the way Tomlin delivers the line, we immediately know she doesn’t mean it.
Elle is a poet and academic who hasn’t written much since the death of her former girlfriend (they had been together for 38 years). She’s paid off her home, cut up her credit cards and rid herself of all financial debt. She’s digging in to spend her autumn years alone and in mourning, with no emotional attachments. Then her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door one morning, revealing she’s pregnant and needs help paying for the abortion she’s scheduled to have later that afternoon.
Except Elle only has $48 and a clunky old car to her name. So the pair sets out on a quest to raise the modest sum by a variety of means: Collecting an old debt from an old friend, a transgender tattoo artist (Laverne Cox from Orange Is the New Black); selling first editions of feminist books to a lesbian coffee shop owner (the late Elizabeth Peña); dropping in on her ex-husband (Sam Elliott), who is still smarting from their breakup but just might still be harboring enough affection to help her out.
Episodic by design, Grandma moves along from one encounter to the next, like a slim novel comprised of chapters (Marcia Gay Harden plays Elle’s still-bitter, estranged daughter). Tying the film together is Tomlin, who spouts lines that are self-reflective (“I was marginally well-known 40 years ago.”) or born out of personal experience (“I like being old. Young people are stupid.”). The movie is slight and, at 75 minutes without end credits, barely qualifies as a feature-length film. But Tomlin is a wonder, the embodiment of a woman who has lived a full life, experienced triumphs and suffered great losses, and isn’t at all melancholy or remorseful as she slides into her golden years. “That’s the way it goes,” Elle says about getting old. It’s not ideal, but there’s nothing you can do except embrace it.
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña.
Writer-director: Paul Weitz.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 79 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.