“Grandma,” a film about a sassy grandmother trying to help her granddaughter find the money for abortion, comes down firmly for a woman’s right to choose.
By aligning itself with the pro-choice movement, the indie comedy is part of a new string of art house releases taking up the Roe v. Wade mantle at a time when many states and legislators are trying to curb reproductive rights.
Time and again the picture embraces the mantra, her body, her choice.
“I hope it wasn’t a polemic of any kind, but I’m glad it says what it does,” star Lily Tomlin said when questioned about the film’s abortion rights stance during its Sundance premiere Friday.
What’s interesting about “Grandma” is that it follows a decade during which filmmakers seemed to steer clear of the issue of abortion. Films such as “Knocked Up” and “Juno” depicted single women and teenagers of limited means choosing to give birth instead of aborting. They were comedies that pro-lifers could love. It got to the point where some publications were asking if liberal Hollywood had switched sides on the abortion issue.
The new attitude was in contrast to ’90s films and pictures from the early aughts such as “Vera Drake” and “The Cider House Rules” that lionized abortionists, as well as ’80s pictures such as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Dirty Dancing” that had lead characters terminating pregnancies in a straightforward fashion. It’s also in stark contrast to pro-choice touchstones such as “Maude,” the ’70s sitcom that’s central character famously decided not to carry an unintended pregnancy to term.
“Grandma” comes on the heels of another Sundance favorite, “Obvious Child,” that depicted a twenty-something woman opting to terminate her pregnancy after a one-night stand. In both cases the films inject some levity into the proceedings, but the issue of whether or not to keep the baby is not treated lightly. “Grandma,” in particular, shows that abortions dredge up feelings of regret and recrimination in a scene between Tomlin and a former lover played by Sam Elliott. In another, Tomlin informs her granddaughter that ending her pregnancy is something she will think about every day of her life.
“It’s such a complex choice and such a private choice, and we’re not allowed to talk about it,” “Obvious Child” director Gillian Robespierre said during an interview with Variety last summer. “There’s a lot of shame that our culture puts on female sexuality and reproductive choices.”
Art house pictures have the luxury of appealing to niche audiences, so it seems unlikely that mainstream comedies would be as willing to engage the issue of reproductive freedoms as candidly, lest they risk alienating parts of the moviegoing public.
Films are responsive to the political climate around them and in the case of abortion, Americans are more evenly divided than ever before. A recent Gallup poll from 2014 showed that 47% of Americans identified as pro-choice and 46% aligned themselves with the pro-life movement. Twenty years ago, more Americans embraced the pro-choice label, with 56% endorsing abortion rights and 33% coming down in opposition to them.
In recent years, states such as Michigan have tried to attack insurance coverage for abortions, while others such as South Dakota and Louisiana have imposed or attempted to enact waiting periods before women are allowed to have the procedure. Even pro-choice advocates have tempered their rhetoric, with politicians such as Hillary Clinton endorsing the idea of making abortions “safe, legal and rare.”
The shift in attitudes towards abortion is reflected in films such as “Grandma.”
“So many people have to deal with this in society, it’s just taboo to talk about” “Grandma” director Paul Weitz told Slate’s Aisha Harris in an interview. “It’s like a third rail.”
He went on to note that statistics show that 30% of women under the age of 45 had an abortion, so it remains a widely sought after medical option.
“Grandma” is not a feminist screed. It’s a nuanced portrayal of a teenage girl in trouble and faced with unappealing options. It’s her choice, yes, but it doesn’t make it any easier.