Grandma: Hard Candy, by David Bax
The stereotype of the irascible old coot character has been around in movies so long that it was tired enough to be parodied in Network almost 40 years ago. Almost every show pitched in that television satire had a character described as “crusty but benign.” Were Paul Weitz’s Grandma a lesser film, that would be a fitting summation of Elle, its titular character. Lucky for us, then, that Elle is played by the great Lily Tomlin, a ferocious comic actor who is as empathetic and sensual as she is funny. A couple of sore spots aside, the movie surrounding her is no slouch either.
Shortly after Elle breaks up with her girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), the end of a fairly brief relationship – Elle is still reeling from the death of her longtime partner a year and a half prior – Elle’s teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up with a problem. She has an appointment to have an abortion scheduled at the end of the day and the lunkhead who knocked her up (Nat Wolff) flaked on coming up with the money to pay for it. Elle doesn’t have any money herself but she has a car and enough piss and vinegar to drive around all day scrounging up cash where she can. If you’re wondering why they don’t go to Planned Parenthood, who will work with women of any financial situation to get them the services they need, that’s an option the movie doesn’t fully address, which is unfortunate but, then again, such a straightforward option wouldn’t make for much of an adventure. Elle and Sage’s financial goal of $630 mixed with the ticking clock make a fantastic blueprint for a story. In this way, Grandma is like a more grounded, abortion-centric version of Gregg Araki’s Smiley Face.
Weitz mines plenty of material from that schematic, letting the viewer count up how much money they’ve gathered along the way and repeatedly making us aware of the time. Sage’s appointment is at 5:45 so when Elle gets a voicemail stamped at 11:00 am, they still have hours to meet their goal but later, when one prospective benefactor gets called into her 4:30 meeting, we know it’s crunch time.
The other benefit of Grandma‘s structure is that Elle and Sage’s odyssey is necessarily episodic as they travel from one acquaintance to the next to ask for help. This gives Tomlin, a comedic character actor with a penchant for sketch work, a lot of opportunities to bounce off a series of fantastic scene partners. In addition to Greer (who gets her biggest film role in a summer filled with Tomorrowlands, Jurassic Worlds and Ant-Mans, though the true gem in her crown can be viewed weekly on FX’s Married), Tomlin shares the screen with such talents as John Cho, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott, Marcia Gay Harden and the late Elizabeth Peňa.
Elle and Sage travel through authentically lower middle class parts of the San Fernando Valley, along Chandler Blvd. in Burbank and then up Cahuenga into North Hollywood before desperation drives them farther west toward an older, wealthier compatriot from Elle’s past whom she’d rather not have to confront. It’s a rare, honest portrait of people who live paycheck to paycheck and their cautious relationship with those who don’t. Weitz stumbles in this regard near the end when a character suddenly seems to be in possession of cab fare but, by that time, sufficient goodwill has been earned to forgive him.
Like last year’s Obvious Child, Grandma will likely be thought of by some as a movie about abortion. Really, it’s something more like a slice of life comedy and a hell of a charming one at that. It does show its teeth a bit eventually, though. When a pro-life protestor who’s apparently seen Juno says, “Your baby has fingernails,” Elle barks back, “Not till 22 weeks, genius.” Still, and also like Obvious Child, Grandma‘s true message is in its normalization of something that, for a great many women, is already normal, in real life if not in the movies.