Writer and director Paul Weitz’s courageous new comedy “Grandma” is a deceptively simple movie. Beneath the relatively straightforward plot, the film tackles complicated issues of access to abortion, mourning and loss, and the fight for women’s and LGBT rights with a light but insightful touch.
“Grandma,” which opens Friday, Aug. 28 at in the D.C. area at Landmark E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas, stars Lily Tomlin in one of the most powerful dramatic performances of her distinguished career. She plays Elle Reid, a gruff lesbian poet who’s still recovering from the death of her partner of 38 years. Her protective cocoon is shattered by the arrival of her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) who announces that she needs $630 to pay for the abortion she has scheduled for later that day. Elle is temporarily broke (having paid down her substantial debt and turned her credit cards into a lovely set of wind chimes), so the two set off to find the money.
Along the way, they encounter Sage’s oafish ex-boyfriend Cam (Nat Wolff), rockabilly tattoo artist Deathy (Laverne Cox), Elle’s ex-girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), feisty feminist bookstore owner Carla (Elizabeth Peña), Elle’s former lover Karl (Sam Elliott), and finally, Elle’s rock-hard daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) who terrifies both Sage and Elle. Along the way, Sage begins to develop some self-esteem, Elle starts to come to terms with her past and her loss, and both prepare to confront an uncertain future.
Tomlin is terrific as the crusty poet who hides her grief and vulnerability behind a gruff façade. Her comic timing is both superb and endearing, but Tomlin never flinches from showing Elle’s dark secrets and unpleasant quirks. She’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, especially Elliott, who gets to show a lot more emotion than usual, and Harden, who finds the hidden heart of a tough character without smoothing off the flinty edges.
Writer/director Weitz wisely keeps the movie simple: a running time of only 79 minutes, a 19-day shoot, a $600,000 budget and a spare script that lets the audience connect the dots. He also grounds the movie in a thoughtful sense of the profound social changes that have swept through society in the past 50 years. The effective pacing, crisp camerawork and the lively score also help propel the story forward.
With a strong script and great performances, “Grandma” should be on everyone’s movie list.