Elle Reid, a tart-tongued septuagenarian author who charges through life like a bull in a china shop, is the sort of character Lily Tomlin might have created decades ago and added to her repertoire alongside Ernestine the indiscreet telephone operator and Edith Ann, the philosophical 5-year-old in her oversized rocking chair. But it’s doubtful the 75-year-old Tomlin could have played Elle then with the same deep reserves of anger and sorrow she brings to “Grandma,” an initially breezy family comedy about mothers, daughters and abortions that slowly sneaks up on you and packs a major wallop. A most impressive detour into low-budget DIY filmmaking for writer-director Paul Weitz (“American Pie,” “About a Boy”), this constantly surprising character piece should spark deserved awards chatter for Tomlin and at least one of her co-stars, as well as solid (if far from “Juno”-sized) indie box office.
Weitz (who first worked with Tomlin on the middling 2013 campus comedy “Admission”) has clearly written a lot of the actress herself into Elle, and like Michael Keaton in the recent “Birdman,” Tomlin plays the part with a certain air of knowing self-regard and the gratitude of a performer who long ago aged out of Hollywood leading-lady roles. A poet whose work is catnip to women’s-studies majors and the like, Elle hasn’t written much since the death of her longtime partner, Violet, and has only sharpened her acerbic defenses against the world. When we first see her, she’s in the midst of breaking up with her new and much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer) — one of a few early scenes in “Grandma” that feel a bit rushed and underwritten. Then Elle’s teenage granddaughter Sage (frizzy-haired Julia Garner) shows up out of the blue and announces that she’s pregnant and needs Elle’s help to terminate it.
Weitz has a lot of expositional baggage to unload, and for a while “Grandma” doesn’t engender much audience confidence. Sage has made an appointment at an abortion clinic for that very afternoon, and they don’t have another slot available for days. But, she’s flat broke and her mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), whom she doesn’t really want to bring into this anyway, has recently confiscated her credit card. Elle, meanwhile, has just finished paying off all her credit-card debt — an accomplishment she celebrated by cutting them up and turning the plastic pieces into a wind chime. (“I’m transmogrifying my life into art,” she proudly declares.) The only possible solution, of course, is to take to the streets of L.A. in Elle’s vintage Dodge Royal and go door-to-door in search of the $600 Sage needs for the procedure (an amount that prompts outrage from Elle, who exclaims: “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?”)
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That gently contrived premise — a gynecological “Nebraska,” if you will — is enough to get “Grandma” on the road, literally and figuratively. And as the characters crisscross the city over the course of the day, their journey becomes an unforced but unmistakably political survey of three generations of independent womanhood in America. Like Tomlin herself, Elle was an out lesbian long before it was widely accepted, and her daughter, Judy, had Sage through an anonymous sperm donor. And now it is Sage’s turn to make a critical decision about her own body and the life of her unborn child — a decision, “Grandma” unambiguously argues, it is hers and only hers to make.
The first act of “Grandma” plays out in fairly broad strokes, with the ill-tempered Elle wreaking predictable havoc in a gourmet coffee shop (unforgivably built on the former site of a free women’s clinic), a hipster women’s cafe (where she tries to sell her prized first editions of “The Feminine Mystique” to the disinterested proprietress, played by the late Elizabeth Pena), and the living room of Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend (Nat Wolff), whom she attacks with his own hockey stick. Such scenes are lightly diverting and often very funny thanks to Tomlin’s wonderfully cutting delivery, the spunky Gerner’s agog reaction shots, and Weitz’s smart, barbed dialogue. (This is surely the first movie in history where “solipsist” and “writer-in-residence” become epithets in a jilted-lover screaming match.) But where “Grandma” takes an unexpected turn, and really hooks you, is in a long mid-film sequence that finds Elle and Sage alighting at the home of Karl (Sam Elliott), a mystery man Elle’s past whose deep pockets just might save the day.
What follows is probably the single finest scene Tomlin and Elliott have ever played onscreen — a knowing, tender and, finally, devastating reunion between two old friends whose lives intertwined once upon a time and who have been irrevocably scarred by the decisions they made back then. Still slender and tan and dry as the desert wind, Karl tallies up ex-wives, kids and grandkids while Elle rolls a joint and joins him on a stroll down memory lane. And gradually, as we come to understand who these two people have been to each other and what happened to cleave them apart, the scene accrues a stunning emotional power. The 70-year-old Elliott, who has played countless cowboys, lawmen and tough guys, has never opened himself up like this in a movie before, or seemed so fragile and vulnerable beneath the flinty macho facade. In about 10 minutes of screen time, he creates a fuller, richer character than most actors do given two hours, and Tomlin is every bit as good as the woman who understands his pain but is helpless to relieve it.
“Grandma” continues to negotiate a nimble balance between the poignant and the ribald all the way to the finish of its brisk 78-minute running time, including a terrific bit where Elle and Sage finally confront the workaholic Judy in her office (where she works at a moving “treadmill desk”). Though likely to be variously praised and pilloried as a pro-choice film, Weitz’s film is really a movie about choice in both the specific and the abstract — about the choices we make, for good and for ill, and how we come to feel about them through the prism of time. “Time passes. That’s for sure” reads an onscreen epigram at the start of “Grandma,” a quotation from the poet Eileen Myles (another model for the Tomlin character), and like Myles, Weitz suggests there are few other certainties in life. We will grow older, maybe wiser, perhaps a bit more tolerant, but no closer to understanding the stirrings of the human heart.