Was it a movie I saw since August 22nd, 2009: Yes, #373.
1) Beginning a story with a title card which simple reads, “Endings,” throws the main character into a startling change. Nothing is settled when it is ending because endings are directly tied into new beginnings, which is what’s happening here.
2) An early strong indication of who Lily Tomlin’s Elle is (in some way).
Elle [about her relationship with Olivia in comparison to the one she had with her late wife]: “You’re a footnote.”
Olivia: “A footnote? That’s a really horrible thing to say.”
Elle: “Well I’m a horrible person.”
3) Lily Tomlin as Elle.
This film is supported on the back of its main character. Elle is everything through the film. She is the driving action and while the motivations may be based on granddaughter Sage’s needs it’s her emotional drama which is the through line of the story. Tomlin is able to play Elle as a consistently interesting, multi-faceted character. We understand the coarse, mean exterior and we understand that this largely is a survival instinct. Part of it is to keep the pain of her breakup hidden, part of it is to keep people distant, and part of it is just because she’s fucking pissed off. The longer the film goes on, the more Tomlin shines in what is one of the best performances of the veteran actresses career.
4) Julia Garner as Sage.
As someone who shares I think all her scenes with Lily Tomlin, whoever was going to play Sage had to hold her own against the veteran actress. Garner does this wonderfully, making Sage her own and wonderfully different from Tomlin. We see her as someone a little more insecure as Elle, or at least a little less “fuck you” to the world. But she finds a nice balance between who she is and who her grandma is trying to get her to be. Garner’s relationship/chemistry with Tomlin is strong and just grows as the film continues, marking a number of exchanges which show they’re equally matched in many ways (even if one might think Sage is on a lower playing field when it comes to verbal sparring).
5) Nat Wolff as Cam.
There are a number of small performances in this film from notable actors which really standout. Wolff may not have much screen time, but he does well to make you root against Cam (which he should). He plays a douche bag/loser wonderfully and you cheer when Elle beats the shit out of him.
6) I’m Elle.
Sage: “You know you’ve got a real anger problem.”
Elle: “No no, I don’t, I have an asshole problem. When people are assholes, I get angry.”
7) More than anything else, this story acts as a mini-odyssey. It’s a journey story where each scene is a stop on the journey. These stopes are not defined by a place or a problem (the problem is consistent throughout) but instead by characters. This is a journey about interacting with characters and exploring realtionships. And one could argue that the destination of the journey is Sage’s abortion (that is what they’re getting the money for) but I think the destination is Olivia’s house at the very end. But more on that later.
8) Laverne Cox as Deathy.
I do love some Laverne Cox in my movies, so her appearance here is a wonderful addition. Cox is immediately sympathetic and kind upon first meeting her, being one of the few people who doesn’t give Elle shit and who Elle doesn’t give shit back. Although a smaller role, Cox makes it as believable as ever. You become invested in Deathy because you only see the character, not the performer.
9) What works about the film is that it is wonderfully simple. It has clear goals and motivations, with every action based on a character choice. It is a wonderfully organic story that doesn’t try to do more than it should. It is focused and clear which is in part what makes it work.
10) Judy Greer as Olivia.
Every time I watch this movie I am absolutely mesmerized by Greer’s performance. It is so incredibly visceral, so honest, so pure. There is some base difference between how Greer plays this part and many of her other roles which just makes it really interesting. An X factor which allows her to have one of the (if not the) best performances of her career. She has this WILD chemistry with Tomlin and through her honesty, through her heart, through her sometimes painful but sympathizing vulnerability, she steals the show.
11) Sam Elliott as Karl.
There’s a good chance Elliott gives the best performance of the entire film in his short scene. He definitely steals the show from Tomlin by portraying the depth of the relationship these characters have. And then there is this absolutely gut wrenching pain which he shows off when the abortion comes up. He’s kind of a creep - asking a woman he knows to be gay for a kiss and sex in return for a favor - but you still feel for him at the end BECAUSE of Elliott’s performance. It’s vulnerable and painful, just really great.
12) I always liked this line.
Elle [after her daughter asks if she liked men since she was married to Karl]: “No I always liked women, I just didn’t like myself.”
13) Marcia Gay Harden as Judy.
There’s a lot of build up to the encounter with Sage’s mom/Elle’s daughter, born from character discussions about how scary she is. And Elle decides to go to her ex-husband BEFORE she went to her own daughter, which speaks a lot to the character and the relationships. And holy fucking shit, Judy is scary. And kind of a raging jackass, really condescending and judgmental. Harden plays the character wonderfully, she’s incredibly powerful and memorable. But Judy is a fucking jerk. Like, her daughter is already feeling bad enough about what’s going on and she’s going the extra mile to give her shit. And THEN she gives her widowed mother such an intense railing for just…being who she is? Honestly most of what we see of Judy is her as a mean spirited asshole and we understand why Elle/Sage didn’t go to her before they did. Although her final scene in the film does act as a redemption of sorts, which is nice to flesh out the character. But I think Elle puts it best.
Elle [about Judy]: “She’s such a brat.”
14) Potentially the climax of the film, the car ride to the women’s health clinic after the pair get money from Judy is such an intense moment of tension for both characters. They’re both really shaken from their encounter with Judy, they’ve had a long as hell day that has been nothing but stress, they’re running up against a clock, so all this tension and conflict just comes boiling to a head when the car breaks down/they’re yelling at each other. It is a sneaky climax (if I’m right and this is the film’s climax), but I do believe it is an organic moment of highest tension.
15) Garner’s best scene in the film is when Sage and Elle are at the women’s health clinic. It’s this quiet moment right before she’s about to get an abortion and there is this soft vulnerability Garner has. She’s still strong, she still goes through with it, but you can tell the situation is upsetting her and the actress plays it with great honesty. I love it.
16) The scene between Judy and Elle in the waiting room while Sage is having her abortion is a brief but important moment of connection between mother and daughter. They have a lot of issues to work through (as we got to see earlier) but they’re civil here and Judy is able to move past her assholery to be honest with her mom for a second.
17) I think this was the destination of the journey story all along. Elle on Olivia’s doorstep.
Elle: “Of course it meant something to me. I loved being in love with you.”
This is a wonderful last scene. It’s tricky, because you would think everything in the film would be leading up to Sage’s abortion. But that’s not where we start. We start with Elle and Olivia breaking up/Elle being horrible to Olivia. It’s through this day, through Elle pretty much analyzing all her past and present relationships, that she gets comfortable enough to be honest with Olivia. She has lost so many people in her life, as this day showed. She can’t loose one more too. Not totally. Yes they breakup, but at least Elle was honest. I love that.
Grandma is a film which is short and sweet. Its story is elegantly simple and it doesn’t get weighed down by anything superfluous. With absolutely wonderful acting across the board with a number of great performances, coupled with absolutely wonderful character writing, Grandma is just one of those hidden gems which is worth your time.