When you think about it, the fact that a movie like Grandma exists is pretty unbelievable. Sure, it's written and directed by a man (Paul Weitz), typical for Hollywood — but it stars a woman. Two women, actually. Who talk about plenty of things, not just men. And one of whom is a lesbian. Who also happens to be in her '70s. And the other of whom is getting an abortion. And she's a teenager. And the other characters include another lesbian, a trans woman, and a single mom who got pregnant using a sperm donor and is now a successful corporate exec.
In other words, Grandma is pretty much the polar opposite of every movie Hollywood tends to make. While female-led movies have become increasingly common as of late (although they sadly still make up a very small percentage of each year's releases), few, if any, are as unabashedly feminist as Weitz's new film. What makes Grandma stand out isn't just its focus on its female characters (although that's certainly noteworthy), but its expression of their identities as simple facts; Elle (Lily Tomlin) is a lesbian septuagenarian, her pregnant granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) is not ready to be a mom so she wants an abortion, and their friends and family are a diverse mix of people that accurately reflect society. Save for the abortion, the movie is not actually about any of these things — it simply shows that they exist, and integrates them into the bigger picture of the plot.
Take Elle's sexuality, for instance. The very first scene of Grandma features a fight between Elle and her much-younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), that quickly escalates to a break-up. There's no lead-up to announce that Elle is a lesbian, or anything else that would "explain" the situation — it's simply an intense, emotional moment between soon-to-be exes. Later, we learn that Elle is a widow, and that her partner of several decades died somewhat recently after a long battle with disease. We listen to her reflect on their romance and watch her comb through photos and other memories of their life together. There's nothing to suggest that her grief is any less potent or relevant than a straight woman's would be if her husband had died, because it isn't. Elle is a heartbroken widow, and her pain is written and portrayed to feel as urgent as that of any person who'd lost their soulmate.
Then there's Sage's pregnancy. When the teenager first announces that she's pregnant, there's no sugar-coating the matter; she's clearly upset and embarrassed, and Elle, although supportive, is obviously disappointed in her granddaughter. The same subtle realism is shown when, soon after, Sage says she wants an abortion. There's no gasps or arguments, no "how could you" speech or "is it the right thing to do?" breakdown. Sage has considered her choices, and has determined that abortion is her best decision. Sure, she has a few moments of doubt — at one point, distraught by the entire ordeal, she asks Elle if she thinks she's a "slut" — but her decision never really wavers. She wants an abortion, and — here's the remarkable thing — she gets it.
Unlike countless movies and TV shows (Juno, Sex and the City, Mad Men, Dawson's Creek...) that feature characters considering abortions, only to decide against them, Grandma actually goes through with the act. Sage is nervous about the procedure, but she also knows that it's the right move for her, and she's surrounded by people who support her choice. So when she arrives at the clinic, she doesn't sprint out or suddenly regret her decision — instead, she listens to the instructions of a doctor, and precedes to get an abortion. When it's over, she looks shaken and tired, but also incredibly relieved. She got what she needed, and now she can move on.
Any one of those elements (an over-70 protagonist, a lesbian main character, a girl getting an abortion — not to mention other aspects like a trans supporting character and a single mom CEO) would be a major deal in a typical movie. But Grandma is not a typical movie, nor does it want to be. It doesn't make its characters' identities or life choices "issues," it doesn't moralize, and, most significantly, its themes (family relationships, heartbreak, grief, learning to be kind) get far more focus than its characters' supposedly "controversial" aspects. Things like Sage's pregnancy and Elle's sexual orientation enhance their characters' personalities the same way any good details would, but they don't control them. Sage's stubbornness and bad romantic choices are far more telling traits than the knowledge that she would get an abortion; the same goes for Elle's anger issues and devotion to her granddaughter, which greatly outweigh the fact that she's gay. Grandma recognizes that people can be many things — straight, gay, young, old, pro-choice, pro-life — without having it define their lives.
At its core, Grandma is about family — the bonds members share, the dysfunction it builds, the holes that it can create and, sometimes, repair. The relationships between Elle, her daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) and Sage will feel familiar — often excruciatingly so — to any viewer, regardless of if the actual details resonate. Grandma succeeds where so many movies so often fail: in showing people as they truly, unapologetically exist.
Images: Sony Pictures Classics (3)