Movie Review | Grandma (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Freda Cooper 07.12.2015

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Grandma (UK Rating: 15)

Throughout her lengthy career, Lily Tomlin has always been something of a scene-stealer, from her TV breakthrough in the '60s in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, to appearances on The West Wing or, on the bigger screen, Robert Altman's Nashville and A Prairie Home Companion. However, it's only more recently that she's moved from being a supporting actress to taking the lead. If her latest film, Grandma, which is released on Friday, 11th December, is anything to go by, it's a shame she didn't do it a long time ago.

She plays the grandmother of the title - semi-retired poet Elle, who is reeling from a double emotional hammer blow: her long term partner has died, and her first relationship since then has hit the buffers. Then granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives on her doorstep with a problem that only $600 can put right. Having paid off all her debts and turned her credit cards into a wind chime, Elle is short of the readies, so the two have to take to the road to find others who can come up with the cash.

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This might be a road movie, but it's not Thelma and Louise. The action takes place in just one day and the pair doesn't travel far from home, making it a surprisingly disciplined piece of film making.  That discipline means there's no room for flabby plotting or rambling dialogue, and the whole thing works like clockwork. Director and writer, Paul Weitz, keeps an equally tight rein on his characters, as well: they are all there for a reason, even the unfortunate restaurant customer, desperate for hot sauce to go with her food!

Although there are two of them on the road, this is very much Elle's movie. To call her cranky is to put it mildly, but there's a good reason for her bad temper, and it's called grief. She's constantly reminded of her deceased partner by the name tattooed on her wrist, and her razor-sharp - and often foul - tongue is a defence mechanism to keep the world at arm's length. She doesn't care what people think of her or what she says, and certainly won't lower her voice in the coffee shop when it comes to discussing why Elle needs that $600. For all her anger, though, she will protect her granddaughter with her last breath. Weitz wrote the script "hearing Lily's voice," and it really shows. Tomlin carries the film with ease, relishing her savagely funny dialogue, yet displaying real compassion and a softer side that eventually catches up with both her and everybody else.

This is, however, no one-woman film, as Tomlin is matched by a stand-out, one-scene performance from Sam Elliott as one of the potential sources of money. With that characteristic voice from the depth of his boots, he lives in a house festooned with photographs of all his previous wives and children, all of whom are numbered rather than named. The reason becomes clear as his story unfolds and becomes increasingly tragic. There are tears in his eyes as he slams the door and lumps in the throat all round.

Besides being sharply written and very funny, Grandma does something special in its portrayal of older people. There's none of the cosiness of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: here, the fact that Elle and her contemporaries are older is simply presented as a facet of their characters. Like the great Bette Davis once said, "Old age is no place for sissies."

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10
Grandma isn't just for a grey market; it's a genuinely funny comedy that alternates between the tart, the sweet, and the tragic. With its believable characters, all resplendent in their flaws, and humour rooted in reality, it is a truly grown up film, and something of a little gem.

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