It’s all too common in film to see people past a certain age who are full of life treated as jokes, because society (broadly) tends to think of older people as lacking the vitality of youth. It’s a trend that’s thankfully decreasing in prominence, thanks in part to an increased lifespan for the broader population. Also helping buck the trend are films like Paul Weitz’s Grandma, which takes a story with fodder more likely seen in a drama and squarely focuses it in a more human light.
The film’s success is largely due to Lily Tomlin, who inspired Weitz to write the story after working with her on 2013’s Admission. Here, Tomlin plays Elle, an aging poet and academic whose snappy behavior and pride have alienated her from many of the people in her life, including her current lover Olivia (Judy Greer) and her estranged daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). Sage (Julia Garner), her teenage granddaughter, shows up on Elle’s doorstep looking for money for an abortion she’s scheduled for the end of the day, but Elle doesn’t have the money to help, and she’s cut up her credit cards into wind chimes to attempt to symbolize her freedom. That leaves Elle and Sage with the option of a road trip to try and collect money from Elle’s old acquaintances. As the two take their trip, it becomes abundantly clear that Elle refuses to take shit from anyone, and she wants Sage to do the same – particularly with the immature father of her child (Nat Wolff). It also becomes abundantly clear, though, that Elle’s attitude has left her with a string of broken relationships. Grandma is, ultimately, not about Sage’s situation or the relationship between Elle and Sage specifically, but rather the dangers that come from living a life so independently.
With Weitz’s track record, this material could have gone any number of ways, but he’s managed to find exactly the right tone for this story. It’s sympathetic and gentle, taking care not to overplay Elle’s wild side or veer too hard into potentially sappy scenes. Weitz also manages to keep the narrative light, touching on Elle’s past – namely, her 38-year relationship with her deceased partner, Violet – through methods like characters mentioning Elle’s tattoo of Violet’s name, or talking about Violet’s impact on their lives, rather than dumping loads of exposition. Each new face presented in the film just pops up, without Elle offering much in the way of backstory. The history between Elle and the other characters, played by (among others) Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott and Elizabeth Peña, are told through their interactions instead.
The segment between Tomlin and Elliott alone is worth watching. The nature of their relationship is only told when it’s needed, and it creates a fascinating buildup as their encounter shifts from moment to moment. It’s a remarkably restrained way to tell the story, and it’s sold by the actors. It’s the best version of a sequence that repeats in some form throughout the film, and doesn’t get old.
Grandma is a small film, in many regards. It covers roughly eight hours of time in under 80 minutes. It’s a glimpse into the lives of a woman who’s experienced a lot of life, and a younger woman just starting out on her own life. It’s a snapshot. It’s also a beautifully funny, frequently surprising showcase for Weitz, Tomlin, and the rest of the people involved with the film that shows the importance of treating characters as three-dimensional beings.