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‘Grandma’ provides an exercise in self-discovery

“Grandma” (2015). Cast: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Sam Elliott, Elizabeth Peña, Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff, John Cho, Meg Crosbie, Frank Cullison, Colleen Camp. Director: Paul Weitz. Screenplay: Paul Weitz. Web site. Trailer.

How well do we know ourselves? As anyone who has ventured off on a spiritual quest or undergone therapy can attest, this can be a remarkable process, full of surprises, revelations, joys and heartache. It often emerges out of the unlikeliest of scenarios, too, as evidenced in the touching new comedy-drama, “Grandma.”

Writer-lecturer Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) has experienced more than her share of upheavals of late. With the passing of her soul mate, Violet, 18 months ago, Elle found herself saddled with an inconsolable sense of loss ‒ and a mountain of medical bills. Needless to say, these circumstances weighed quite heavily on her. But, as difficult as these trials were, little does she know that there are even more to come.

Drawing upon her vast reserves of resilience and determination, Elle vowed not to let these setbacks keep her from living her life. She actively took steps to move on, such as marshalling all of her assets to pay off her debts and seeking companionship with a new (albeit significantly younger) partner, Olivia (Judy Greer). However, these measures ultimately proved only marginally successful. Eliminating the pile of outstanding medical bills left Elle debt-free but virtually penniless, and her four-month relationship with Olivia quickly collapsed under the weight of her unresolved grief. Sadly, despite these seemingly hopeful, well-intentioned efforts, Elle now finds herself broke and alone.

But, just when Elle thinks matters can’t get any worse, her 16-year-old granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up on her doorstep in need of cash. When Elle asks her what the money is for, Sage confesses that she needs it for an abortion. Once the initial shock wears off, Elle agrees to help her as soon as she receives a check that’s due her. But Sage insists she can’t wait; she says she needs the funds in time for her medical appointment – later that same day. And so, with that setup, this unlikely duo takes off in search of $630 before sunset. They embark on an extraordinary journey filled with laughter, tears, quarreling, secrets and more swearing than one would hear in a bar full of sailors.

In the course of their fundraising odyssey, Elle and Sage cross paths with an array of characters from their respective pasts and presents, including the father of Sage’s child (Nat Wolff), a longtime friend and tattoo artist (Laverne Cox), a snarly café owner (Elizabeth Peña) and an old flame from Elle’s flirtation with heterosexuality (Sam Elliott). There’s also a contentious encounter with Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), a high-powered, overcaffeinated corporate type with a knack for intimidating everyone she meets. It’s a day full of ups and downs. But Elle is determined to find a way to help her granddaughter, and anyone who gets in her way had better watch out, as an unsuspecting barista (John Cho) discovers for himself.

However, even though the focus of this outing is to get help for Sage, as the day’s events unfold, it gradually becomes apparent that this undertaking is as much about Elle as it is about her granddaughter. Specifically, circumstances nudge Elle into addressing the many unresolved issues in her life, both from her past and her present. And, to that end, Elle is forced into coming to terms with herself, getting in touch with who she really is and why she acts as she does. It turns out to quite an eventful day, one that has the potential to change lives for all concerned.

Through this exercise in self-confrontation, Elle comes face to face with her true nature, one based on the beliefs she holds about herself and her life, the very building blocks of her existence and the foundation of the conscious creation process that brings it into being. The elements of her surrounding reality reflect those beliefs, providing her with a mirror of her own intents. And, as a result, Elle gets to see her inner self projected outwardly into physical form through the people she meets and the events that transpire.

For example, on numerous occasions, viewers witness Elle’s self-acknowledged fiercely protective nature, a quality that readily springs forth when needed, such as in her dealings with Cam, the irresponsible father of Sage’s child. She’s also supremely generous, as becomes apparent in reminiscences with Deathy, her tattoo artist friend. Elle clearly takes pride in these traits, attributes that illuminate the strength of her character.

By the same token, audiences also get to see Elle’s self-absorbed side, another quality of which she’s keenly aware but that she frequently tries to deny or casually disregard. On the one hand, she unapologetically embraces this aspect of her nature, but, on the other, she attempts to bury it under layers of denial or flip dismissiveness. In both cases, however, this characteristic often carries heavy consequences and tends to rub people the wrong way, as Olivia and Karl can clearly attest. And, once Elle starts to become aware of this, she must ask herself whether she wants to continue such behavior. Indeed, does she really want to be known as a selfish, self-avowed, self-created pariah?

Then there’s Elle’s troubled relationship with Judy, an association almost exclusively based on conflict. They rarely see one another, and Elle even hesitates contacting her now. This separation has emerged mainly because she abhors her daughter’s overbearing personality. But, then, given Elle’s behavior, is it any wonder where Judy gets it from? It should come as no surprise that Judy’s demeanor is another reflection of Elle’s internal beliefs. Judy thus acts as a mirror, showing Elle an aspect of her true nature that she’d probably rather ignore but that she’ll have to address if she ever hopes for things to be different between them.

Taken collectively, these incidents provide Elle with a powerful exercise in self-discovery. It forces her to examine, address and understand why her life has unfolded – and continues to unfold – as it has. Does she want more of the same going forward? Or do these circumstances provide her with the catalytic spark she needs to turn her life in a new direction? Given that she’s intentionally drawn these conditions into her life, it would seem that she’s looking to make a change (or to at least probe its viability). What she does with this opportunity, however, depends on the beliefs she holds – and implements – as she moves into her own future. It’s quite a revelatory experience. (And here all this time she merely thought she was helping Sage.)

“Grandma” is easily one of the year’s best releases thus far, a flat-out winner that never fails to entertain in both its comedic and dramatic aspects. Tomlin gives a virtuoso performance that is already earning her much-deserved awards buzz. But Tomlin is not alone when it comes to fine acting; she’s supported by an excellent cast of cohorts, especially Harden, Elliott and Garner. None of this would happen, however, were it not for the film’s solid script, which, despite a few contrivances, is strong from start to finish.

It’s also refreshing to see a movie that depicts the lives of same-sex couples with the sort of easy, matter-of-fact attitude on display here. Elle’s relationships with Violet and Olivia are taken as readily accepted givens, with no particularly special attention paid to their existence, as evidenced in the breezy, no-nonsense comments Sage and Judy make about them. One can only hope this is the start of a trend that other film narratives won’t hesitate to adopt.

If nothing else, “Grandma” effectively illustrates how helping others ultimately enables us to help ourselves. What begins as the provision of assistance for a young woman in trouble gradually evolves into an aging spirit taking stock of her life and what she wants for the future. It’s an example we can all draw from, both in our dealings with others – and with ourselves.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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