There’s a scene in the new film "Grandma," starring Lily Tomlin in the title role, in which the character of Tomlin’s 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage, played by Julia Garner, flips through a stack of signed first edition books from the second wave feminist canon—books like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, and additional works by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and others—with absolutely no regard for the magnitude and cultural importance of the books she holds in her hands. But for Sage, who is 10 weeks along in an unplanned pregnancy, that’s OK. Sage may not have read the books or know the story of the women who went before her and paved the way for the legal abortion she has asked her Grandma to help her fund, but Grandma, whose name is Elle, did. And so did Mom, whose name is Judy and is played by Marcia Gay Harden in all her long-haired glory. And because they read these books and they live in an environment in which other thinking people read and learned from these books, Sage now lives in an environment in which the word “abortion” is not whispered. Same sex couples may kiss and love and split up and die as if it is a completely common thing to do. Women say “fuck” and nobody winces. Little girls sucker punch bothersome strangers with knuckles wrapped with multi-colored rubber bracelets. Women who are grumpy and irritable are “assholes” rather than “bitches.” And a whole film can go by without the viewer even realizing that the only men on the screen were a cab driver, two jerks in a café, a loser of a boyfriend, a one-lined tattoo artist, and the brilliant Sam Elliott who may have played the best role of his life.
If passing the Bechdel Test was a category at the Academy Awards Grandma would win the Oscar hands down.
No, Grandma is not a fantasy film and there is no science fiction involved. It’s simply a Slice-of-Life film, but the life is one apparently devoid of homophobia (Elle is still mourning the loss of her long-time partner, Violet, whose name is tattooed on her wrist); racism or transphobia (Laverne Cox plays an old friend who Elle and Sage visit as they try to raise money for the abortion and whose sexual identity is never noted); or ageism (as Elle’s most recent partner Olivia, Judy Greer, who looks, acts, and is 40-years-old, is depicted as a too-youthful match for Elle.)
Whether director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy," "Admission") wrote and directed Grandma as a paean to all things healthy and progressive is hard to say. It seems more likely that he set out to create a film in which an unlikely character rises above self-imposed restrictions as she tries to save the day and be there for her granddaughter who is facing something Elle warns the young woman she will think of everyday for the rest of her life. If this is the case, Tomlin carries out Weitz’s wishes with a kind of precision and efficiency that leaves little time for sentimentality. One can only imagine how refreshing it must be to Tomlin, at 76, to play the role of a wise old lesbian poet given how many straight “ditzy dame” roles she’s been cast in throughout her career. Even the closing shot has Tomlin walking healthily and happily down a lengthy road laid out before her as if she has many more stops on her journey ahead.
But that’s not the point of Grandma, the film. As comfortable and validating and reassuring as Grandma is in its understated respect of the diversity of humanity, the film is ultimately about getting along with the people we love, have loved, and want to love more. It’s about the age-old challenge of swallowing our pride when we think we shouldn’t have to. Valuing the happiness of another over one’s own happiness. And more than anything it’s about growing and learning as long as we live. Beautifully written, directed, and acted, Grandma is ultimately a feel-good film about family and both personal and inter-personal growth. See it. Feel good. Feel strong.
Grandma is playing at the Nickelodeon Theatre through October 1st.