Lily Tomlin is such a treasure, but like Betty White and other comediennes of a certain age, she’s not usually allowed center stage. Her fans have to make do with engaging cameos in movies and television shows, or else make do by revisiting old favorites like 9 to 5.
So it’s delightfully awesome that Tomlin has the lead role in Grandma. And that it’s directed by a man, American Pie and About a Boy co-creator Paul Weitz. And that she’s playing a lesbian!
Tomlin’s lovable ornery poet is onscreen for every scene of this dramedy, and as expected she imbues this character with depth, humor, and sass to spare. The unusual, female centric plot takes the road trip formula and turns it on its head by centering it on the quest to pay for Tomlin’s granddaughter's (newcomer Julia Garner) abortion. This leads to broader moments like Tomlin railing against pretentious coffee houses or giving her granddaughter’s lame-o ex (Nat Wolff) what for, as well as her grappling with relationships with her young ex-girlfriend (the ever-dependable Judy Greer) and a surprising older flame. Not surprisingly, everyone learns a thing or two about life along the way, and long simmering conflicts come to a head; Marcia Gay Harden has a brief but pivotal role as Julia’s comically uptight mom.
As unconventional as it is in terms of subject matter, Grandma follows some well-worn formulas, and it’s doubtful anyone will be surprised by the way things turn out in the end. But it’s so consistently entertaining and satisfyingly emotional that only a hardened cynic would reject it. It also goes a long way towards putting the stories of women—in particular lesbian and transgender women—into the mainstream, making their struggles relatable for female/queer and male/straight audiences alike.