As the old saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Even though Lily Tomlin has continued to have a presence on television, including her new Netflix show Grace and Frankie, her days of being anything more than a supporting actor in movies seemed to be long gone.
But it only takes one filmmaker and a special role to make people realize what they’ve been missing, and for Tomlin, writer/director Paul Weitz and her starring turn as Elle Reid in Grandma are it. Elle is an aging poet whose granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), comes to her for help when she gets pregnant.
Sage needs money to have an abortion, but since both she and Elle are near broke, they must call in favors far and wide to scrounge up the necessary funds. It’s a day-long journey that forces Elle to confront many of her personal demons, including a recently ended relationship with the much younger Olivia (Judy Greer), her testy bond with her daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), and other things she thought she had left in the past.
To say that Tomlin’s performance is a tour de force is putting it mildly. Weitz has gifted her with a role that plays to all of her strengths, but more importantly, one that never reduces her to a pile of clichés. Elle is brash and foul-mouthed, smokes pot, and has a checkered romantic history, but she is never defined by any one of those things.
Instead, they all add up to a perfectly complex character, a person who more often than not leads with her heart instead of her head. But she’s far from unintelligent, and the decisions she makes throughout her day with Sage are ones designed to get them to their goal, even if it costs Elle some temporary pain.
Tomlin is as funny as she’s ever been in the role, but it’s her level of dramatic emotion in the film that carries the day. Whether it’s Elle’s reaction to her break-up with Olivia, the way she interacts with Sage, or her confrontation of old wounds, Tomlin never fails to impress with her range. She was nominated for an Oscar nearly 40 years ago, and she wholeheartedly deserves another nod for this part.
The supporting actors are mostly strong, though none match Tomlin’s power. Garner is a rising star who only stands to get better. Greer and Harden are great in limited roles, as is Sam Elliott in an extended cameo. Laverne Cox and Nat Wolff are fine in their small roles, but they don’t make much of an impression.
Grandma is the Lily Tomlin show through and through. After bearing witness to a performance like this, anybody who ever doubted Tomlin’s talent should bow their head in shame.