Road trip movies are both a rich seam of comedy history and a horrifying one. For every classic, there are ten frat boy comedies with as much originality as a joke about airplane food. In other hands, Grandma may well have ended up with a title like Bad Grandma and ended up heading down that route. In the hands of writer-director Paul Weitz, this story of a woman trying to help her granddaughter raise money for an abortion is a touching and real piece of cinema.
A lot of that is down to the performance of Lily Tomlin as Elle. A lesbian poet, she is as cantankerous (and all those other words we use to describe old people who aren’t as nice as we’d like them to be) as they come. Obviously still in mourning from the death of her life partner Violet, she treats life as something that needs to be fought. As likely to beat you with a hockey stick as she is to lecture you about feminist theory, Tomlin is near perfect in the role. Her comedy timing is exquisite and she makes a completely unlikable person, someone who you end up having a lot of sympathy for.
She’s aided by a great foil in Julia Garner, as her granddaughter Sage. Her wide-eyed looks of horror as her grandmother offends yet another person are a constant source of amusement and she walks the line between youthful naivety and being annoying, well. A short appearance from Sam Elliot, in a section of the film titled ‘the ogre’, is also scene stealing as he proves to be a painful memory from Elle’s past.
What makes this film special, however, is its treatment of the issues at its core. Homosexuality, abortion and more. It does it by not really doing anything with it. They are just things that people are or that people need to do and that is refreshing. For all the talk of how we need more of these things to be represented in cinema, they won’t truly be accepted until they are just the norm and during the roughly 80-minute running time of Grandma, that’s exactly what they are.
Grandma is a wonderful piece of cinema. A warm and fresh piece of work which is easily Weitz’s best since About a Boy. It tells a simple story but imbues it with so much heart and life that it almost feels real. These people are just people, most of who, have some things that they need to deal with. It may well be one of this year’s hidden gems and deserves to be found as quickly as possible.