Paul Weitz’ latest is a fresh spin on the hero’s journey which features a virtuoso performance from Lily Tomlin as the lead character. It is a meditation on motherhood, loss, and facing the consequences of our decisions that is simultaneously humorous and bittersweet.
Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, an aging lesbian widower and washed up writer who is determined to help her granddaughter Sage get the money for an abortion.
When we meet Elle, she sends her younger girlfriend packing with a coldhearted dig. “You are footnote,” she spits.
Basically, Elle is a crank. She is unafraid to speak her mind and is unconcerned if it alienates her from others. We also learn that Elle’s gruff demeanor is also a product of survival; she has lost the love of her life, suffered the disappointments of a lackluster career, and she is estranged from her career driven daughter.
Julia Garner plays granddaughter Sage and shows up at her house unexpectedly and confides that she needs an abortion, but is afraid to approach her own mother for the money. Despite not having the money herself, Elle vows to help her and has only a day to figure out how to get it. The journey forces Elle to seek help from people in her life she’s left behind and confront her own demons in the process.
The film is also a metaphorical journey through American feminism. Not only is Elle a lesbian widower of a biracial relationship, a feminist poet and a mother, but we get to see the emotional impact of her choices on her former husband and her overachieving daughter. It is also a glimpse at feminism through a rearview mirror. In contrast to today’s pampered, sheltered, entitled narcissists, Elle belonged to a generation of feminists who took real risks. Elle was both a lesbian who was previously married to a man and someone who set out on an artistic path that was probably risky and novel in its time.
The fact that the ultimate goal of the film is to obtain an abortion for Sage carries a lot of subtextual weight. In one particularly funny scene, Elle demands to see the father of the child. Naturally, Cam is a self-absorbed loser who can barely be bothered to answer questions let alone provide money for the procedure. When Cam threatens Elle, she delivers a righteous bit of comeuppance that will put a smile on your face. The meeting with Cam also shines a light on Sage’s lack of emotional maturity, her bad judgment in men and the absence of responsibility and awareness in young people in general.
In a later scene, she makes an appeal to her former husband, Karl, played by Sam Elliott. Elle asks for the money, but is dishonest about her motivations for the request. When pressed, she reveals the true purpose and Karl refuses. We are given a glimpse into the pain and anger of the male experience of abortion. In an era when the experience and choice of women with respect to abortion is accorded total deference and the man’s feelings are regarded with contempt and indifference, this scene feels pretty bold.
In another funny scene, Elle resolves to sell her first editions of seminal feminist texts. She insists that her first edition of The Feminine Mystique will pull in a healthy sum, but is given a rude awakening when Sage does a basic search of prices on eBay. She castigates Sage for being ignorant of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, and Sage dishes it right back for her ignorance of Mystique from the X-Men. It’s a funny commentary on the absence of historical perspective on feminist thought and the texts which were once considered subversive, but may not be as relevant or subversive anymore.
Out of options, they finally resolve to reach out to Elle’s overachieving daughter, Judy. In the role of Judy, Marcia Gay Harden brings a level of domineering bitchiness that is both Elle’s diametric opposite and her mirror image. Sage is terrified of her mother and Judy is seething with judgment and contempt when all is revealed. Tempers flare, but Elle and Judy resolve to lower their emotional guns and focus on supporting Sage.
Though the film ultimately affirms access to abortion as an important right for women and a philosophical cornerstone of feminism and mainstream politics, the film is also an affirmation of motherhood itself. Sage expresses deep regret for her choices, but insists that she wants to raise children at some point.
Grandma is very entertaining film that tells a relatively straightforward story, but is loaded with a lot of poignant editorial. Given that today’s feminism is obsessed with idiotic notions of patriarchy, male privilege, and ideological rectitude, this film reminds us that the real female badasses are unafraid to speak their minds, stand alone as individuals and most importantly, know what it means to take responsibility for your own choices.