2015 was most certainly the seminal year for veterans actresses having their moment in the spotlight with lead roles in acclaimed films. Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years, Blythe Danner in I’ll See You in My Dreams, Dame Maggie Smith in The Lady in the Van, and perhaps most interestingly, Lily Tomlin in Grandma. I have been a big fan of Lily Tomlin for quite a few years, and her performance in Nashville has to be one of the greatest performances of the 1970s. However, its been far too long since Tomlin has received a substantial leading role, meaning it has been too long since she has has been given a role that requires her to do more than just be the sassy, wise-cracking older woman with a youthful spirit. It has been far too long, but there was not a doubt that Tomlin still had a fighting spirit, and her performance on the Netflix series Grace & Frankie only proved she still had what it took. In some divine intervention, she was given another great leading role, one that will possibly be the best of her career.
Paul Weitz has been a director who has certainly had a very uneven career – he has had some great independent hits (such as About a Boy), and some absolutely dismal failures (Little Fockers, anyone?), and I would hesitate to call him a great director overall, but he certainly does know how to make interesting films, and Grandma is an extraordinary film. It tells the story of Elle Reid, an elderly poet whose longtime partner recently died, and she has been dating a much younger woman (played wonderfully by the constantly underrated Judy Greer), and when her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) comes to her for help, she can’t help but listen – and when it turns out that her granddaughter is pregnant, and fearing being a teenage mother, wants to terminate the pregnancy, but needs money to do so, the girl and her quirky grandmother set out on an adventure to find the money to do so. Along the way, they find themselves meeting a whole array of complicated and complex characters, some of which are of great assistance, others only serving as frustrating obstacles.
Tomlin is an extraordinary actress and comedienne, because she is honestly unlike any other. Despite being well into her septuagenarian years, she still possesses a certain youthfulness that none of her contemporaries do. The way she performs, you would not expect her to be the age that she is, and it almost appears as if she stopped aging as a performer in her thirties, because I don’t quite feel like she is capable of playing a character quite like this – and that isn’t a complaint, but rather a compliment. There is no one quite like Lily Tomlin, and coming from the days of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, she has a truly progressive but classic way of performing, which is something not often seen today. Her performance as Elle Reid is a perfect way to show that even after half a century of work, she is still able to command a screen and being a unique and exquisite screen presence. Tomlin is just too likable and charismatic to not be drawn to, and through her performance in Grandma, which is equal parts hilarious and emotionally heartbreaking. Her performance may not be entirely dramatic, but it is very effective and it proves that Tomlin is an absolute class act when it comes to giving a great performance.
Grandma is far more than just Tomlin’s fantastic performance, however. Julia Garner gives a great performance as Sage, the conflicted pregnant granddaughter of Elle, and while it is not Garner’s first film performance, it is certainly the one that she will get noticed for. I hope that she gets more offers, because I definitely see potential in her to become a great young star. Marcia Gay Harden proves herself to be one of the best character actresses working today, and playing Tomlin’s daughter and Garner’s mother, she is hilarious and terrifying, and is an absolute riot. Sam Elliot (who also stole the show in the aforementioned I’ll See You in My Dreams) gives another knockout performance this year as Tomlin’s ex-husband and the man who hates her for abandoning him and their unborn child. Judy Greer once again proves how she needs a film where she is the lead, and Laverne Cox is also very good in her small role as Elle’s tattoo artist friend.
Grandma is a great film. Small and very quirky, it is hilarious and very touching. It packs an emotional punch, while still bringing the laughs. Tomlin is absolutely fantastic, and she leads a cast of wonderful performers, each of whom give magnificent performances. Grandma is a very good film, and one that is absolutely unique, because very rarely does an audacious story like this get told, and while certainly controversial, it doesn’t mean that it is bad in any way. It is absolutely fantastic, and one of the best independent films of the year.