Staff Writer Kyle Turner’s coverage from the Provincetown International Film Festival continues with a review of Paul Weitz’s Grandma.
There’s a complexity about Paul Weitz’s Grandma which is rather overwhelming: it’s about generational differences between three women, the mistakes we make as parents and as people, the right to one’s own body, and what it means to love someone and how they impact your life. But the complexity isn’t necessarily always a good thing, as the road trip is long and winding. But with Lily Tomlin, at least it’s always engaging.
At the center of Grandma is Lily Tomlin as Ellie, a previously well-known academic and poet still recovering from the death of her longtime partner, and Julia Garner as Sage, Ellie’s 18 year old granddaughter who appears on her front step in rather dire situation: she’s pregnant, plans to terminate the pregnancy, but does not have the money to pay for it. Her mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), is far too prickly and volatile to tell such a secret, and so Sage decides to ask Grandma for help.
Their journey takes them around the Los Angeles area, with each visit transparently divided up as chapters in their lives. We visit Olivia, the girlfriend with whom Ellie has recently broken up; Deathy (Laverne Cox, who I wish had been on screen longer) as a friend who owes Ellie; Karl (Sam Elliott), a man from Ellie’s past; and others. And each visit has the weight of a different kind of emotional lesson about forgiveness, or learning, or embracing one’s own autonomy. And while those ideas are all well and good, Weitz’s writing seems clunky at times, trying to hide a kind of didacticism behind humor. It pokes through frequently and not as slickly as it wants to.
If the film has any appeal, it’s for the sharp tongued Tomlin and the dialogue; droll, sardonic, barbed. Perhaps with another actress, it’d be far too easy for the performer to get lost in that dialogue, to make it the thing about their character and ignore other facets of Ellie. But Tomlin’s grace and elegance allows the barbs to be shards of a mirror, reflective of Ellie’s own faults and flaws.
But frustratingly, the film is unable to cohesively blend its thematic preoccupations, and feels cumbersome. The road trip structure isn’t helped by that; this particular narrative choice ends up exacerbating those problems because it wants to so neatly arrange the ideas based on the stops, and yet seems to make them feel all the more incoherent.
Tomlin saves the film from this weighty thematic incoherence. Her performance is grounded in a real kind of sorrow and bereavement. Underneath every line there’s an ache or a yearning for the intimacy that has been snatched from her. We understand that Ellie has always been a bit of a provocateur, for lack of a better word, but that every event has shaped who she is, not least of all the passing of her partner. There is a sensitivity and strength to Tomlin’s performance which is, frankly, ageless.
Grandma arrives in select theaters on August 21st from Sony Pictures Classics.