A cinematic gem
This film is a total and utter joy to watch. So few films manage to have a plot that is so well-rounded and immersive with characters with such real depth. The fact this film is only (!) 78 minutes makes it even more magnificent – it’s not bloated nor is it lean. In fact, to an extent, the film feels far long in a good way. It feels as if you actually know these characters. They almost feel like friends.
Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) is a sometime poet and sometime academic. 18 months ago her partner of 38 years died after a long illness. Three months into a new relationship she breaks up with girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). In front of Olivia she appears to not care about her soon-to-be ex-lover, even proclaiming her to be a ‘footnote’ in comparison to her dead love. Soon after Elle’s granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives and needs her grandmothers help. Sage is pregnant and has an abortion booked for 5pm that day, but she doesn’t have the $630 to pay for it. Elle doesn’t have that money to spare, all she has is $48 after paying of medical costs and other debts. She even cut-up all her credits cards as a symbol of a new start. Both Sage is too scared to ask her mother for help, a fear Elle shares. So the two go on a road trip to get both the money they need and to come to terms with their recent troubles.
There are not enough films like this being made at the moment. It’s witty and intelligent, heart-warming and emotional, compelling and laugh-out-loud funny. As we are in the middle of Oscar season it’s not surprising this film has had a degree of Oscar-buzz, but it’s been quiet compared to that surrounding other films that could be regarded as Oscar bait. The prospect of a Grandma and her Granddaughter road movie may not sound massively appealing but there is so much more to it. The relationship between the pair is so well portrayed by both actresses.
Tomlin creates a character who does not have all the answers but will still insist on answering back, who is quick to get angry and can be bitter with her words. But her performance as Elle is also feisty, funny and full of vitality. She swears, she’s got tattoos, she attacks a dead-beat boyfriend but with her performance and a finely-written script she creates a truly appealing character. We laugh with her not at her. The love she has for her granddaughter is unquestionable and fully justifies her actions.
Garner’s Sage is so carefully handled. A pregnant teen nowadays is a regular focus for reality tv, but Sage is very different from the ‘stars’ of those shows. Instead she is a girl who is looking for love, who is grieving for her dead Grandma and watching the alive one struggle with grief. Sage is immensely endearing and her narrative never strays into sappy.
Though the film’s driving force is obtaining the money for Sage’s abortion her decision is never questioned, somewhat surprising for an American film. In fact the film overall is about liberalism but never preachy. Elle clearly lived through a progressive period of time, her poetry and art-centric background were once part of the counter-culture which is slowly being forgotten and disappearing. Sage represents the new, with access to the internet and other resources she is ignorant to the world around her. She knows little of the time her Grandmother lived through, and knows nothing of women’s history. When visiting her Grandmother’s acquaintances, a transgender tattoo artist (played by Orange Is The New Black’s Laverne Cox), a rather intimidating butch cafe owner and listening to Elle’s views on society it is made clear just how little Sage really knows about the world around her. But this progressiveness is not dominant, not shoe-horned in nor heavily-handedly forced upon us. Instead these culture contrasts are treated carefully and tenderly like its characters.
The film has an episodic narrative, with five chapter marked with title cards. Each chapter focuses on one of their visits to try and collect the $630. All of the chapters are exceptionally good but #4 titled ‘The Ogre’ is my personal standout. Elle brings Sage to visit Karl (Sam Elliott) who she has not seen in 39 years. The emotion generated by this scene is lump-in-your-throat-inducing. The pair bounce of each other as years of resentment come rising to the surface. Equally good is the emergence of the mother (Marcia Gay Harden) is manages to be worthy of the terror Elle and Sage feel towards her but still able to grab our sympathies.
A study in character and emotion unlike many of this year’s releases. A little film worthy of much acclaim.