Emotional honesty, feminist characters and Lily Tomlin make “Grandma,” written and directed by Paul Weitz, a notable and sometimes marvelous road tale.
Weitz, whose credits include “American Pie” and “About a Boy,” has made a modestly scaled, sweet and sour dramedy containing familiar road-film elements, such as colorful encounters, but also a protagonist who consistently seems fresh and novel.
Tomlin plays Elle, an ill-tempered 70ish poet in Los Angeles. Grieving over the semi-recent death of Vi, her longtime girlfriend, Elle callously dumps her current lover, Olivia (Judy Greer). “You’re a footnote,” Elle tells her.
Elle’s journey begins with the arrival of 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), who is pregnant and has an appointment at the abortion clinic later that day. She needs $600 for the procedure, and Elle, who cut up her credit cards, is broke.
Neither woman wants to ask Sage’s power-lawyer mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who is the daughter Elle raised with Vi, for the money. Judy will surely yell and not let up.
Elle decides they will take to the road, visit people from her past, and hit them up for cash. A quirky journey in her mid-’50s Dodge follows.
Tattoo artist Deathy (Laverne Cox) sympathizes but can’t donate much.
Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend, Cam (Nat Wolff), proves so useless that Elle, who has a tendency to make a scene, whacks him with a hockey stick.
The tone deepens at the home of Karl (Sam Elliott), a figure from Elle’s distant past. Unresolved issues surface, dramatically.
Indeed, some of this story, which includes a race-against-time element complete with engine trouble, is contrived and unimpressive, and Weitz, keeping things safe, never lets Elle’s darker shades feel threatening. We know the journey will end pleasingly. The potentially interesting Judy is shallowly developed and sometimes comes across as a controlling career-woman caricature.
But Weitz and his actors deliver wonderful humanity throughout. This is an entertaining, affecting movie about mothers, daughters, lovers, and the choices we make and how they shape us and others.
Weitz’s screenplay contains wit and observantness. Teenage Sage, having never heard of “The Feminine Mystique,” likens the title to the name of an “X-Men” character.
The feminist, lesbian and abortion components give the movie near-rarity status, sad as that may be in these supposedly enlightened times.
Not that the abortion, which Weitz presents sensitively, is the prime ingredient. Weitz focuses on Elle’s story, and Tomlin, never letting things get mushy, gives the film a stirring heroine — smart, funny, sad, principled, exasperating, and deeply caring.
The supporting players, too, are effectively cast, with Elliott’s Karl faring particularly well. The sequence in which Elliott and Tomlin reveal the details of their characters’ connection is a knockout.
Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer
Written and directed by Paul Weitz
Running time 1 hour, 20 minutes