Sunday, October 04, 2015

Grandma (2015)

Film: Grandma (2015)
Stars: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott
Director: Paul Weitz
Oscar History: Tomlin scored at the Globes, but couldn't translate that over to a second nomination.
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Slice-of-life films are probably my favorite movie genre of the moment, particularly modern slice-of-life movies.  The reason for this I can't quite explain, but I think it largely has to do with the fact that so much of your life is not spent on gigantic decisions or what you'd consider the "headlines," but instead on the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day things.  We love movies about falling in love and fulfilling a dream and gigantic moments like war or discovery, but the reality is that most days are spent doing on constant auto pilot and routine.  Slice-of-life movies have a weird purpose then, because a film like Grandma shows how even the most ordinary of days can occasionally have a great deal of meaning if you let them, and while I don't want to sound like a "chase your dream" sort of person, living a more purposeful existence is something that we should all learn to do, particularly if it's from a film as easily watchable as Grandma.

(Spoilers Ahead) We find this out in Grandma because Elle (Tomlin) is at a bit of a crossroads in her life.  We don't find her the day after her longtime partner has died or when she has decided to start loving again, but well after that when she has dumped Olivia (Greer), her girlfriend of a few months and her granddaughter Sage (Garner) has stopped by because she needs an abortion and doesn't have the $600 she requires to get the procedure done before her appointment later that day.  Elle takes Olivia on a road trip to find the money, and in the process revisits some old friends and old wounds.

The best part about Grandma is the way that Elle realizes about halfway through the film not only how much of her life has been left in pockets of productivity, but how few people come to mind as ones who truly matter.  She starts out with friends she know will actually care about her like Deathy (Cox), a tattoo artist who has a high opinion of Elle, and then slowly back-pedals to less and less likely candidates to give her the money, including eventually her ex-husband Karl (Elliott) and her estranged daughter Judy (Harden).  It's a weird conundrum for a woman who spent so much of her life identified in her happiness by the same person and who has coasted in some effects on her early career success, something an artist can do quite easily, but let's be fair here-we all kind of do.  The Peter Principle should be renamed a bit to also realize that those people who stay contented in the same position eventually come to the realization that perhaps they should have done more, something you can see Elle grappling with in the film when she is frequently questioned about both her success and failure as a writer.

The friend thing was more interesting to me, though, because it shows a weird side of loneliness, my favorite subject for the cinema.  Elle's only real friend in the world, we find out as the film progresses, was her partner Vi.  Her daughter doesn't really have time for her, her granddaughter is only stopping by because she's out of options, and all of the people she encounters as the movie progresses are from the past, not vibrant parts of her present.  As you get older you have to make more and more time sacrifices in order to balance work, family, and increasingly your own need for self-reflection.  As a result, you sacrifice friendships and relationships to strengthen others, and while that's usually a safe bet, eventually death or divorce cause you to realize you made the wrong choice, or a choice with consequences.  The great thing about this movie is we see it not just in Elle, but in those around her as well.  Look at the powerful scene with her ex-husband Karl, a man of many children and wives who has never gotten over the fact that his first wife left him for a woman and that she had an abortion, but later on still got pregnant in order to have a child.  While Tomlin is perpetually funny in the film, this is the scene that really shows what a strong performer she has been all of these years, and why both she and Elliott are such pros.  The way that she tiptoes around a man she knows she wronged, but also the hurt that comes from him, a man consumed by bitterness that happens when you love someone and they still break your heart-it's a gargantuan scene that could have been its own movie, but Grandma remains slice-of-life, and so we only get it for an instant which is that much more powerful.  Will Elle and Karl, who clearly have had unresolved business for decades, ever resolve those wounds?  Almost certainly not, and that's the greatness of this movie as it mirrors reality so well.  Life is rarely made of beginnings and ends-almost always it's just a series of middles, which is why we find ourselves so desperate for the movies where everything concludes the way we wished life would.  Grandma understands that, and that's where its power lies.

Those were my thoughts on Grandma, Lily Tomlin's first starring role in 27 years.  What were yours?  Have you seen the film yet (and if not, what are you waiting for)?  Are you enjoying this great year that Sam Elliott (also awesome in the wonderful I'll See You in My Dreams) is having?  And do you think Tomlin can get a second Oscar nomination forty years after her first?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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