Though it was greeted with open arms by critics and even grew into a decently wide theatrical release, Grandma has been curiously absent from most of the awards conversation this season in favor of movies with more politically neutral storylines, bigger budgets, less academic themes, younger stars, and male characters. Even in a year where the many popular female stars in Hollywood, like Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer, are unambiguously discussing women’s issues in relation to their professional work, Grandma has remained a hidden gem, not exploited as an awards contender, and really, it’s a film that should be swimming in nominations. Grandma one of the most important, enjoyable, and intelligent films of 2015.
Grandma can best be described as an explosion of second wave feminism. In an alternative way, it rekindles history to probe the interests of those who may not know much about women during the time period between the 1960s and 1980s. It also reminds those who are cognizant of the effects of that time to hold more due reverence to women’s history. Scholars and historians would eat Grandma up with a spoon if they could –- there’s even a plug from a character in the film who says her college major was Women’s Studies.
Lily Tomlin’s acerbic one-liners and astute wit drench Grandma’s outer appearance, but the film works on much deeper levels than a kooky old woman spouting off shocking thoughts as they enter her mind. Grandma balances a social commentary with a character study of one the year’s most daunting comedic creations. Writer-director Paul Weitz uses the film as an exploration of Tomlin’s character, Elle Reid, through the quandary of her granddaughter, Sage. Weitz introduces and concludes the film with Elle’s failing relationship with her girlfriend, Olivia, while the rest of the picture analyzes Elle under the microscope of her granddaughter’s quest for the financial costs of an abortion. The structure of the script is inspired and the route it takes when tapping into Elle’s life enables larger conversations about feminism to take place.
Grandma looks to debunk the younger generation’s lacking knowledge of women’s issues, an element of education that has seemingly evaporated from their upbringing. All of this history has taken place and children have been steered away from it. The road trip plot of a grandmother helping her granddaughter carry out the choice of not become a teenage mother is merely the skin hiding the meat of the film’s true itinerary: Examining the contrast between generations of women, and specifically how women’s history has faded as taught information to the youth the farther time moves away from the second wave feminism. Younger peer groups have little to no idea any of this history exists and why it’s so important.
Elle represents the women who lived through the 1960s and 1970s, while Sage is a typical illustration of young women today who have grown up in a post-feminist world. Women who used to admire activists like Gloria Steinem and authors like Betty Freidan now are confronted with a new generation who have no knowledge of these fundamental figures. In one of the more humorous scenes of the film, Elle throws her original copy of The Feminine Mystique into the hands of Sage, whose most relevant knowledge of the keyword “Mystique” is the character from the X-Men blockbuster movie franchise. Elle, like many women who lived through the feminist movement would respond, is flabbergasted by how unaware her granddaughter is of such an impactful novel of the 1960s.
Weitz and Grandma do not necessarily lay blame at the feet of any one source for this phenomenon but rather imply that it’s a collective attempt started during the Reagan administration and the anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s and 1990s that halted the progress of social movements from the 1960s and 1970s, and has since been left dormant.
Appropriately, a whole other level in this narrative is amplified when Marcia Gay-Harden’s character, Judy, enters the picture. Judy draws more peculiar differences from the other characters as the mother to Sage and daughter of Elle. Neither of the three are alike –- each are padded with their own problems –- and yet there’s an inescapable emphasis on the disconnect between the older women and the teenager. The way these characters overlap and diverge is something Weitz exhibits and implores the audience to think about.
In addition to simply pointing out the disparity between millennials and seasoned older women who carry the history of feminist movements on their backs, Grandma imposes a statement on how improve the state of understanding women’s history: Educate these children for God’s sake! The progress of gender equality cannot as effectively continue if the younger generation is not introduced to landmark events and how ideologies have shifted in the past. Viewers of Grandma should question how young women are able to manage and defeat a sexist political climate if they are not, in fact, equipped with the insight they need to survive, grow, and recognize the how the systems of power work in a patriarchal world.
Using abortion as the driving force of Grandma is perfect way to introduce younger women to the past: Abortion connects the historic moments of women’s reproductive rights during the second wave and the controversies that remain in flux today on the topic. (Also, it’s interesting to note how non-confrontationally the topic of abortion is handled in Grandma. There’s not an argument about whether the question of morality surrounding abortion –- something most films featuring abortion always add into in their plot. The film commits to the acceptance of abortion as a human right, and that is that.)
Grandma’s colorful cast ranks as the most underappreciated ensemble of the year. Each of the actors blaze through their roles and each performance is authentic and worthy. Sam Elliot, in particular, cuts to the core of his character in a moving way. The wonderful thing about Grandma’s palette of characters is that it’s probably the best example of any movie this year of how to pass the Bechdel test. Ironically, the film fails the inverse of the Bechdel test: It does not have two male characters who speak to each other at all, let alone about something other than a woman. (This may seem a bit harsh of a quality for which admire the film, but hey, now the gentlemen can see what it’s like to be a woman watching modern Hollywood cinema every day of the year.)
One may assume that since Grandma is about (older) women, discusses women’s movements, and largely draws on the female experience that the creative mind behind the project would be a woman, right? Wrong. It’s still a man, which speaks to the rarity of female control of production in the film industry, but more importantly to the extensive effort Weitz puts into Grandma. It’s a vehement demonstration of a man’s ability to write a complex female story. Weitz’s excellent screenwriting is deep and reflective, and he nets it together with truthfulness in his directing.
But if there has been any traction for Grandma so far, it has rightfully gone to Tomlin’s magnetic, feisty turn as the astute, misanthropic Elle. In a long career that has made her one of Hollywood’s most treasured comedic talents, Elle is the role of a lifetime for Tomlin. Grandma feels like a crown celebrating Tomlin’s distinguished career. Her presence rules over every frame of the film and her nerve infests it with humor, spirit, and poignancy. If ever Tomlin were ever to win an Academy Award, this is the performance that should do the trick.
Consider Grandma. Consider Paul Weitz. Consider Lily Tomlin. It would be wrong to overlook their contributions to cinema this year.