When visiting an old friend, Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin, “I Heart Huckabees”) jokes that his many remarriages have made him a patriarch. But one look at the wine-stained stacks of feminist literature littering her household and you know “Grandma” is nothing other than the highest of matriarchs. Filled with the wisdom of age and the fire of youth, Elle’s brassy wit and progressive attitude command attention and place her at the center of her family’s orbit.
So when her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner, “Electrick Children”) gets pregnant, it’s Elle’s door she comes knocking at for abortion money. Bad news: despite a once-prestigious writing career, Elle’s broke too. A 1955 Dodge Royal takes them to Elle’s acquaintances all over town in an effort to pony up the cash. Equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and heart-wrenchingly poignant, Tomlin’s skillful performance sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Clocking in at barely 80 minutes — a sprint among stamina-testing Oscar contenders (and this does deserve to be an Oscar contender) — “Grandma” boasts an impressively economical use of screen time. In a sense, the structure takes on Elle’s attitude toward life. Rather than wasting time wading through past narrative, it hits the ground running. The opening scene ushers us in right in the heat of Elle’s breakup with her girlfriend, without even leaving time to explain what, exactly, initiated the argument. Every character introduction thereafter seems to come in medias res, so it’s the dialogue-heavy character interactions that drop just enough context clues for the viewer to stitch together the extensive backstories. What’s so amazing about this is that we get to learn about the past in a way that also propels the current situation forward in one fell swoop.
The most notable use of this dialogue style is in Tomlin’s scene with Sam Elliott (“The Big Lebowski”), where Elle’s persistence pulls feelings of nostalgia, hesitation, reluctance, tenderness and hurt out of the both of them. The course of an entire relationship, from its peak to eventual downfall and the loose ends afterward, is revealed in just two lines that don’t even explicitly state information, just the characters’ present emotions. And it’s not just scenes with Elliott that get this treatment: every one of the supporting characters maximizes their time on screen, showcasing their talent and revealing remarkable depth about their personal history.
On a media representation level, “Grandma” is as progressive as Elle herself. For starters, it’s one of the very few movies featuring teen pregnancy in which the character actually goes through with the abortion (the only other one that comes to mind immediately is “Obvious Child) and has it portrayed as a reasonable option. While it’s not the media’s job to take one political stance over another, it is important that it represent real decisions that real people make, and not selectively. Also, it treat’s Elle’s sexuality as something completely normal, focusing on the story behind her relationships rather than the gender of her partners.
Honestly, every aspect of the entire film is spectacular, from the naturalistic camera work to the restrained use of a sweet soundtrack — the type that makes you smile out of love for life and everything in it. But the cherry on top of an already teetering mountain of cherries is the dialogue, written with subtle but with alarming complexity and executed in the same fashion, making it one of the best films —if not the best — of 2015 thus far.