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August 28, 2015

I suppose I have to start off by admitting that Grandma talks about abortion. I know this is a hot button that freaks some people out, so consider this fair warning right off the top. Calmer, more sensible audiences have been lucky to have movies coming out now that deal with the subject in a calmer, more sensible way. There are even ones that don’t center every last detail of the story on the Big Issue, like last year’s Obvious Child. I just never thought I’d see a review of one that contains the phrase, “from the director of American Pie.”

That’s not really fair to Paul Weitz, though. He didn’t write that one, and when he does write — as he does here — he’s usually more thoughtful and nuanced than, well, pastry-philia. Grandma follows on the heels of his last feature, Admission, born out of his desire to work more with the great Lily Tomlin, and it’s a perfect match for her longstanding feminism.

Tomlin plays Elle; a little on the nose, sure, but trust me you barely notice it in the film itself. She’s just broken up with her girlfriend (a still-underused Judy Greer), when her teenaged granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up, needing money to terminate an unexpected pregnancy, with a clinic appointment scheduled on the same afternoon.

Of course, Elle has no money, being an underemployed academic and poet. She even cut up her credit cards to make some point that seems a little pyrrhic in retrospect. But that doesn’t mean she can’t help. They pile into Elle’s late partner’s disused old car to chase down the money. After getting a jump-start, they hit the road for real.

Oh yeah, Elle’s partner. Violet passed away some years ago, but Elle is still clearly haunted by her grief, which is partly why she couldn’t really commit to her recent ex. She’s also at odds with their daughter, Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who has cast off Elle’s countercultural rebellion for a Chanel-pink business suit. But it would be wrong to say that she’s abandoned feminism; she wears the suit as a high-powered executive, and she took control of her own reproductive choices by conceiving Sage with the help of a sperm donor. If anything, Sage is the one who seems lost in all of it, not even recognizing names like Betty Friedan’s.

In a way, Elle’s day seems to reflect the current struggles underlying feminism as a movement. She’s bound to her past — Violet standing in for second-wave feminism — but finds herself outmoded and even opposed by those who have come after her and their ambivalence towards what came before. Meanwhile, in all their fighting the upcoming generation of women are ignorant and alienated from all these concerns until they find themselves in trouble and needing help. And that help’s not likely to come from the boys around them — Sage’s irresponsible not-quite-boyfriend (Nat Wolff). Rather, they should look to the generations of women who have stood together before to hold each other up, and need to come together again now.

In particular, this is all reflected through the characters’ opinions around abortion, as the signature political issue for feminism over the last fifty years. Not all of them are positive, none of them are simple, and they’re all informed by lived experience. There’s even a particularly strong negative reaction, courtesy of Sam Elliott as a one-time friend of Elle’s, that gives a real honest counterpoint without turning it into a straw-man to be handily beaten down.

I don’t know whether this was all in Weitz’ head when he sat down to write a story to match Tomlin’s voice and character. Maybe a female writer and director could flesh out this metaphor even more strongly than he has. But Grandma, as it stands, is a charming and sensitive film, and one of the best we’ve got so far.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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