THERE is no escaping Lily Tomlin’s legendary status. With decades of work in cinema, TV, and in stage productions, the 76-year-old star is famed for her uniquely subversive style of comedy.
Tomlin’s infamous expletive-fuelled run-in with director David O Wilson on the set of I Heart Huckabees some years ago showcased another side to the veteran actor.
Full of furious acerbicism, the viral video captured somebody who was driven to hostility through exasperation – and you can imagine that this is exactly what Tomlin could connect to in Grandma.
Tomlin plays Elle, a poet and academic, who is grieving the recent death of her partner. When Elle’s teenage grand-daughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up pregnant and in need of cash for a termination, the two embark on an impromptu road trip that forces long-underlying contentions in each of their lives to be faced.
In case you haven’t guessed, you can dispel any thoughts of doilies and purple rinses. Writer and director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) has a very different image of growing older – a more grounded and holistic view that encompasses the manifold and often contradictory impulses that make up a human being.
Elle is a character that is absolutely unfettered, with no filter between her thoughts and the expression of them. But she is also unfettered in the sense that she is now aimless, and for the first time in years forced to think about who she wants to be.
Can the lesbian poet, the shrewd academic, the wayward traveller, the loving mother, and the nurturing grandmother all co-exist?
Grandma starts out slow and clumsy with Tomlin caustically dismissing so many of the first-world problems that irk us in the modern world.
Elle mischievously tips the sacred cows of civilisation and offers a kind of comeuppance-by-proxy for the viewer, though it feels more like shooting fish in a barrel. Thankfully if you stay a little while with Grandma, you will find there is a wealth of depth just below the surface.
Any clunkiness in the comedy dynamic between Tomlin and Garner dissolves once we begin to meet other characters from Elle’s past and present – including a particularly outstanding scene with Sam Elliott, who plays one of Elle’s old flames.
As a bittersweet comedy drama, this film will sadly end up being lost amid the Christmas cinema bustle, but it will no doubt receive award recognition for Tomlin.
While it may not offer a conventional subject matter or narrative, Grandma is one of the most thought-provoking and authentically human character studies on screens this year.