“Grandma” is as slender as they come: a character study of a cranky old lady as she spends a morning and afternoon trying to help her granddaughter get an abortion. It’s predictable in many places and acerbic in others, sentimental when you expect it and poignant when you don’t. But it stars Lily Tomlin, and that’s all you really need to know.
At 76, Tomlin has shed what precious few inhibitions she had left, and her character in “Grandma” is, one senses, reasonably close to the woman herself. Elle Reid is an LA writer who had some notoriety as a poet and feminist back in the day but who has retreated into the hills in a kind of low-level war against modernity and other people. A happy four-decade relationship ended a year earlier with the death of her partner, Violet, and a new girlfriend, a worshipful younger woman named Olivia (Judy Greer), has just been sent packing for unspecified crimes against Elle. Then the granddaughter, Sage, comes knocking, needing $600 and too scared to tell her mom. It’s an old setup: Can the curmudgeon be made to care, to live, to love again?
The cast puts it over, and not just Tomlin. As Sage, Julia Garner believably veers between impatience and insecurity; beneath her mask of adolescent bravado is sheer terror and beneath that is a watchful resilience that is getting tested for the first time. Marcia Gay Harden is the mother sandwiched between these two, a dreadnought Type-A lawyer who seems an awfully easy reaction against growing up with hippie moms; the actress does solid work with middling material.
Sam Elliott — the go-to guy for graying hunks these days — gets to dig into rich wells of bitterness and regret as a long-ago lover of Elle, and the late Elizabeth Pena is onscreen much too briefly as a cafe owner to whom Elle tries to sell her first editions of feminist classics. Laverne Cox of “Orange Is the New Black” is similarly short-shrifted as a tattoo artist, but it’s wonderful to see Greer get a role that requires her to be more than a fusspot best friend or persnickety neighbor; Olivia doesn’t get many scenes, but she packs them with layers of understanding, anger, and admiration. It’s her best work since the cheated-on wife in “The Descendants.”
Still, the show belongs to Tomlin, who hasn’t headlined a film since the mid-1980s and who’s having something of a moment, given her costarring role with Jane Fonda on the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie.” The vein of caustic truth-telling that was present even back in her “Laugh-In” Edith-Ann days and that surfaced most brightly in Tomlin’s stage work in the 1970s and ’80s — she won two Tonys for her one-woman shows — has become part of her persona and part of Elle, who tells so many truths, with such wry ferocity, that most people can’t stand being in the same room with her.
“Grandma” plays this for funny-granny character comedy, but the movie’s less soft-edged than the trailers suggest, despite some cutesy business with an old Pontiac and with Sage’s dim-bulb boyfriend (Nat Wolff). Elle is a real pill, a know-it-all who has her disgust with the world’s failings to disengage from feeling anything, especially grief. (“How come you stopped writing?” someone asks Elle. “People stopped reading,” she replies, as if that were a reason.) What saves her (and us) is her acerbic observations about everyone and everything. All of which are funny and most of which are right.
The writer-director is Paul Weitz, whose career has veered from the ridiculous (“American Pie”) to the sublime (“About a Boy”) and back again (“Little Fockers”). This counts as an indie film for him — it’s the kind of movie where calling someone a “writer-in-residence” is the ultimate put-down — but you can sense the tidiness with which it’s all put together. It’s not where this movie goes that surprises you but the grace notes on the way there. The most unexpected aspect is that Sage’s abortion is neither minimized nor built up into a Major Statement; it’s life-size and personal, with the measured sorrow that suggests. “If you don’t cry about this, what the hell are you going to cry about?” Elle snaps at her granddaughter. The unstated answer is everything, of course. That’s why we need our grandmothers — especially the pills.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.