Elle (Lily Tomlin) is an academic/erstwhile poet with an acerbic tongue and a combative attitude. When Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives at her doorstep with an unwanted pregnancy and little money, they embark on a journey that involves Elle ringing up old acquaintances to collect enough money for an abortion. What ensues is a day of episodic reunions, some painful, some joyful, and most raucous and downright funny.
GRANDMA is essentially a story about revisits, both literal and figurative, and how such a journey yields new understandings of one’s life and one’s relationship with others. With an exuberant Lily Tomlin at the center of the film, GRANDMA manages to be both wildly funny and quietly sweet. And even though the film pivots around the adventures of Elle and Sage, some of the most emotionally moving moments involve Elle and her estranged daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) and Elle reminiscing about her deceased partner.
The film may be uneven at times, and certainly some episodes work better than others (the sub-plot of Elle with her recent ex, for instance, never seems to really take off). Yet overall the film manages to be an enjoyable ride, full of worthy mid-stops and a thoughtful, gently hopeful destination.
GRANDMA premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and got its New York premiere at Tribeca in April.
Pang-Chieh Ho is a contributor to Screen Comment and covered the last Tribeca Film Festival.