Movie Review: ‘GRANDMA’ – A Bittersweet Tale of Healing Through Family


Jared McMillan // Film Critic

GRANDMA | 79 min | R
Director: Paul Weitz
Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Elizabeth Peña, Nat Wolff, John Cho and Sam Elliott

When I think about my grandmothers, who have long passed on, I think about how nurturing and inviting they were to myself and the other grandkids. That’s how you’re supposed to think about them, right? That’s what they’re there for in life, to be a constant source of doting and compassion (and a surprising $5 bill). We don’t think about the history associated with them though. Both of my grandmothers might have been the epitome of love, but that’s a role they played as a grandmother. As Phyllis and as Sarah, they had their own viewpoints of the world, their own roads paved with cutting gravel that led them to be so hard-nosed when it came to those viewpoints. I was never old enough to really have adult conversations with them, nor discuss any situations that would shape me to become an adult. What I know about how they were as women, I can only piece together from stories told by my parents and their siblings. This is the central idea of Paul Weitz’s GRANDMA, a basic story of a grandmother helping her granddaughter as she comes into a situation that would shape her to become an adult.

The movie opens with Elle (Lily Tomlin) breaking up with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) in sudden fashion, with Elle showing no remorse, even some disdain, as she ends the relationship. Moments later, as she goes through her past in fond remembrance, she gets a surprise visit from her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner). Elle knows something is up as Sage has come to borrow money. As it turns out, it’s for an abortion, which Sage has an appointment for in less than eight hours and needs around $650. However, they are both broke due to circumstances involving credit cards: Elle cut hers up to make wind chimes out of it once she was debt free, and Sage’s was confiscated by her mother.

It’s a testament to who they are in their lives at the moment, as Sage is never getting her credit as an individual from her mother, and Elle, a feminist poet, doesn’t want any credit for her work. Sage’s mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), is an option they both avoid because she is a figure who reminds them of their weaknesses, literally and figuratively. Elle agrees to help her out, and they go off in search for the necessary funds putting the plot in motion.

Julia Garner as Sage, and Lily Tomlin Elle Reid. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Julia Garner as Sage, and Lily Tomlin Elle Reid. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Elle is a defiant woman by nature who cannot let herself be vulnerable to anyone, fortified even further by the loss of her wife Violet over a year ago. Her problem is that everyone knows she’s in a rut of sorts except her, and Sage’s problem leads her to reconciliation with herself, as well as people from her past and her present. Director Paul Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, uses a delicate balance to keep the movie an intimate portrait without becoming too heavy or melodramatic. The narrative is sectioned into chapters shown by a title card to give the sense of an autobiography, each chapter representing a part of Elle’s life. The movie’s establishing shot is fragmented into several different shots to reflect the sort of disconnect that Elle is having at this moment in time, a reflection of her world. Most of the movie is shot in shallow focus to blur the world in the background, keeping the focus on Elle and Sage.

Keeping the movie centered on a grandmother and granddaughter is key, as feministic values are constantly in the background. Yes, this is who Elle is in her mindset, but the movie is just about her role as Grandma to Sage. GRANDMA walks a fine line to make sure that it doesn’t use its characters to preach or overwhelm the audience. The feminism comes through in natural dialogue, not in grandstanding. For example, we know Sage is getting an abortion, but the movie never goes into “the right to choose”. Her choice is clear and there’s no real reason to go into it further. And, being a relationship between two different generations, Weitz knows when to pull back a little so it’s not so condescending. For example, Elle and Sage have a conversation about The Feminine Mystique, with Elle meaning Betty Friedan and Sage countering with Mystique from the X-Men movies. The movie stays centered on studying the familial relationship, using the dialogue to form character and plot.

GRANDMA does have some elements I found cheesy (her name is Sage for crying out loud), but it never really becomes a factor as the performances are what matter in a character study. Lily Tomlin commands the screen so well that you tend to forget the minor negatives. It’s difficult to convey emotion without physically conveying it, but you can tell, through Tomlin, that Elle conveys false bravado and a strong façade in confrontation. The other supporting performances are good for the most part, even though Sage can come across as a bit clunky, and Laverne Cox’s part as Deathy varies between hammy and heartfelt. The real surprise for me was Sam Elliott as Karl, a former love of Elle’s who gives insight into Elle’s past in their encounter, and the effect certain decisions can have on you. As the narrative goes on, we go from seeing her as Grandma, someone who will show compassion, but see Elle in a completely different light to connect the audience even further. Grandmothers are meant to surprise you, and GRANDMA is one of the best surprises of 2015, and one of my favorite movies of 2015.

GRANDMA opens in select theaters tomorrow.
Dallas: Landmark Magnolia, Cinemark West Plano

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.