Imagine if Lily Tomlin was your grandma?

Tomlin plays grandma, girlfriend, mother and outward misanthrope Elle Reid in this charming, female-centric comedy-drama which screened this week as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

GRANDMA kicks off with Elle breaking up in no uncertain terms with her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), one of many caustically harsh scenes peppered throughout the movie. Leaving her on her lonesome, Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) rocks up to and reveals that she’s 10 weeks pregnant and needs money for an abortion she’s scheduled later that day.

Hesitant to tell the pair’s mother/daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), grandma and granddaughter set out to raise the $600+ needed, Elle having recently turned her credit cards into wind-chimes. After visiting deadbeat boyfriend who gets a quintessential Tomlinesque dressing-down, Elle moves on to friends, acquaintances and former lovers to raise the money to help her granddaughter out.

There is no question that Tomlin carries this film in a role tailor-made for her unique brand of dry, emphatic humour. Her obtrusive earnestness and dedication to her granddaughter, trudging up old-demons and turning over rocks she’d otherwise have left lying in her quest to get the money is touching and provides a solid emotional backbone for the film.  Interactions with other characters, however harsh or blunt often elicit a fond laughter as well as a well-drawn back-story from even the most transitory of meetings.

GRANDMA is remarkable in two respects, the first being its reliance on and clever use of character actors.  A small yet diverse cast each plays their part in an assembly of weird and intriguing characters Elle and Sage encounter in their search for the money, including (eventually) the very entertaining Harden as a fraught business executive attached to her treadmill. Greer is charming and immediately likeable as the spurned ex-girlfriend, accidently running into the pair during their search. Sam Elliot has a short yet highly memorable and sympathetic turn as former love-interest Karl, leading to one of the tenser confrontations in the film.

131048_oriGRANDMA is also highly unusual for its cast, screen-time and thematic focus being centred almost entirely around women. The grandmother/granddaughter duo are together for almost every scene in the film, meeting a number of strong female characters including a tattoo artist in a parlour frequented by Elle and later their respective daughter/mother. The film also paints an affectionate and vivid portrait of Elle’s former partner Violet who passed away a year before the action takes place.

There are a number of male characters who help move the narrative along, some readily dis-likable like the boofhead boyfriend, others downright objectionable, including a short cameo by HAROLD & KUMAR’S John Cho, and others with whom the audience builds instant rapport and empathy, including Karl. They play second-fiddle however in a film about women and driven by women, not least of all Tomlin who is commanding throughout.

There’s no entangled romance with some guy exuding itself between scenes, nor is there great deference to a male character and their positioning within the film (or for that matter central male character at all) which typically characterizes a vast number of releases. The decisions in GRANDMA are made by women in the interests of women, a change in tack from much of cinema’s offerings which is thoroughly refreshing and welcome.

There are a number of films which have screened at the Sydney Film Festival so far which have focused on strong (albeit flawed) female character-driven roles including the opening night’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD starring Carey Mulligan and Mia Wasikowska’s MADAME BOVARY. GRANDMA takes it a step further by keeping the focus on women throughout, with a decision to showcase talented and diverse female characters/actors in roles which could easily have been written for and cast with men, resulting in a rewarding, acerbic and altogether gratifying film.

4 Kernels out of 5 

On Salty Popcorn

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