“Grandma” explores female experience

by Andrew Kingsley | 9/20/15 6:08pm

“Grandma” (2015) opens on Ellie (Lily Tomlin), a former poet, college professor and widow, bitterly breaking up with Olivia (Judy Greer), her much younger girlfriend of four months. Ellie has been largely forgotten by life beyond a few anthologized poems. Her fiery vigor has been extinguished by the tides of time and loss of Violet, her former partner of 30 years, leaving behind an irascible, icy self. Now she just treads in the narcotic waters of nostalgia, donning her professorial regalia while leafing through old photos. Anonymity becomes her refuge, as she pays off her debts and cuts up her credit cards to turn into a wind chime, as if she is tying up loose ends before the curtains close.

But purpose comes knocking in the form of Sage (Julia Garner), her teenage granddaughter in need of $630 for an abortion. Like a newborn child, Sage is wide-eyed and terrified of her future, as if tears are always about to spill from her mousy, cherubic mien. Like jumper cables she awakens Ellie, the passionate feminist and grandma bear in need of a lamb to shepherd. While she has her work cut out for her — Sage believes Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” refers to Mystique from X-Men — Ellie must teach Sage how to walk the walk and talk the talk so a man will not do it for her. Unfortunately, Ellie currently only has $50 to her name, which sparks their quest to find a benefactor amongst Ellie’s lost friends and acquaintances.

Their first stop is obviously the father, Sage’s stoner punk boyfriend who tries to steamroll all over her spinelessness by denying his paternity. But then Ellie comes in like a wrecking ball, grabbing his hockey stick and delivering a vasectomizing slapshot. Score one for the matriarchy. In the car, she gleefully counts his money as if thinking, “I still got it.”

Indeed, Tomlin still has it. At 76, she acts like her precocious five-year-old “Edith Ann” character from her “Laugh-In” days has grown old and wizened but has still maintained the same acerbic, incisive wit. A once-abortion clinic turned chic coffeehouse is low hanging fruit for Ellie’s unfiltered polemic, as she pours her “redundant” drip-coffee on the floor and reminds the customers of aborted fetuses within the espresso-laden walls. She enlivens that crotchety “kids these days” mentality with her earnest and unabashed humor and makes ballbusting gutbusting. After a while, even Sage stops abashedly whining “Grandma!” and embraces Ellie’s bite. It feels like stand-up without the mic, and one begins to wonder what is scripted and what is just Tomlin’s riffing.

But the film steers away from pure buddy comedy and begins to paint a more nuanced portrait of Ellie through her encounters. As if it were a cigarette, Ellie gets a soothing tattoo of an “O” — for ovaries, says Ellie, or Olivia, claims Sage — from her friend Deathy (Laverne Cox). Growing increasingly desperate, she tries to thrust her dusty first-edition copies of the feminist canon upon an old friend and returns to her wealthy former husband from whom she ran away 30 years prior. Inevitably, Ellie and Sage must approach “Judge” Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), Sage’s aloof, high-profile mother and Ellie’s estranged daughter, for the money and mend old wounds.

Shot for a truly indie $600,000 and compressed into a tight 78-minute package, “Grandma” avoids melodramatic breakdowns, shoulder coddling and last-second cold feet, which is rare in films about abortion. It is a determined march towards facing death while creating life in the process. While Sage puts off motherhood, Ellie becomes a mother again. Perhaps it’s the genre — think “Obvious Child” (2014) — but abortion comedies are unapologetically frank and sympathetic, as if to show any picketers the door while capturing the herculean decision mothers make within the same scene. As Ellie puts it, “This is something that you will probably think about at some moment every day for the rest of your life.” These comedies remind us of the humanity surrounding abortion and bury the executioner-esque guilt beneath narratives of togetherness and rebirth. An event that could have ended in funeral bells in past movies now deserves a “happy birthday,” for the birth of a stronger family, a new Sage, and an Ellie rescued from insignificance.

Rating: 8.5/10

“Grandma” is now playing at the Nugget Theater at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., as well as 9:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.