I used to date a girl who couldn’t see herself with women long term. (As far as I know, I’m the last girl she ever dated.) Once, over pizza and wine, she told me she wasn’t that into guys, but she’d avoided dealing with any of her queer feelings — before acting on them, finally, with me — because she had never been able to imagine her life playing out that way. “I mean, who would take care of me when I’m old?” she asked me, her brow wrinkling. She was completely sincere. Women weren’t a viable option for her. Having grown up in a conservative, Christian pocket of the American South, she had no cultural script of elderly lesbianism from which to potentially model the trajectory of her life.
I couldn’t fault her. Mostly, I just felt really, deeply sad for her. Luckily for me, I’m confident — or at least hopeful — that I’ll have a gal pal to grow old with, even though I don’t really have much of a cultural script to go by either. I didn’t, that is, until Lily Tomlin in Paul Weitz’s Grandma.
For her first lead role in 27 years, 76-year-old Tomlin plays the prickly feminist poet Elle, whose days-past dalliances in academia as a writer-in-residence recall Adrienne Rich. Elle's relationship with a much younger girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), recalls poet Eileen Myles, who is quoted on a title card early in the film: “Time passes. That’s for sure.”
Time is, at once, Elle’s enemy and her saving grace. She’s grateful for her age: “Young people are stupid,” she tells an ex at one point. But it’s because of the passage of time that she’s lost her partner of 38 years, Violet. Now, it’s a year and a half after Violet’s death, and in the film’s opening scene, Elle breaks up with her young new flame for the crime of being young and new. “You were a footnote,” Elle spits at her. Olivia leaves, heartbroken; Elle cries in the shower.
And time, above all, is the film’s antagonist: Elle’s teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), has made an appointment for an abortion later that day. She needs $600 for the procedure before she loses her slot. Elle, who has been “transmogrifying her life” by cutting up all her credit cards, is broke, having recently paid back all the medical debt Violet’s illness saddled her with. To help her granddaughter, Elle takes Sage along on a madcap car ride through L.A. and through her past, hitting up old friends and lovers for a few bucks, hoping the funds will all add up before Violet’s 1955 Dodge Royal seemingly turns back into a pumpkin at 5:45 p.m.
It’s a simplistic plot. Some of the laughs come cheaply: Elle whacks Sage’s deadbeat boyfriend (Nat Wolff) in the groin with his own hockey stick; Elle makes a ruckus at an abortion clinic turned coffee shop for a few beats too many. But wherever the script is uneven or reductive or borderline hokey, Tomlin barrels through it with such hilarious gusto, such bombastic charisma that you can almost forgive the film its few stuttering faults.
Elle takes no shit, setting herself apart from grandmotherly stock characters. We’re used to the archetypal sweet, sexless, cookie-bearing grandmother (Grandma Josephine in Willy Wonka); the God-Grandma-You’re-Embarrassing-Me grandmother (Helen in Sixteen Candles, all the old ladies in Grandma’s Boy) or the oft-used crazy demon grandmother (Drag Me To Hell, Legion, Dead Silence).
Elle is none of these — she actually has an inner life, and provides an invaluable counternarrative to cultural constructions of elderly womanhood. She’s a foul-mouthed firebrand who will tell off anyone and everyone in the way of helping her help her granddaughter. An old-school lesbian feminist with first editions of Friedan and de Beauvoir, she’s baffled that the only thing Sage thinks of when seeing a copy of The Feminine Mystique for the first time is an X-Men character. Elle is mean and blunt; we’re made to believe she’s even more so now because Violet is not there to tame her anymore. And she’s aspirational, sour attitude and all: Who wouldn’t want to be rolling through town on a Dodge Royal in a denim jacket at age 76?
Unlike the Liam Neesons and Clint Eastwoods of the world, older ladies are rarely assumed to be interesting enough to merit storytelling attention, let alone afforded lead actor status. While Tomlin and Jane Fonda star in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, which was picked up for a second season in May, the film landscape looks decidedly more bleak. Speaking at the New York Film Society of Lincoln Center, Tomlin told the audience she isn’t exactly overwhelmed with starring opportunities: “I’m of an age where I might get an offer to do a supporting role or something, and even then it might not be a bona fide offer,” she said. Tomlin’s performance in Grandma breezily demonstrates that women in their seventies are interesting people leading interesting lives with many years’ worth of interesting perspectives — they’re not just one-note jokes or supporting figures in other people’s stories. Who would have thought!
And Elle represents a version of a life with a longtime loving partner, kids, and grandkids that most queer and questioning people once thought impossible. (It still seems impossible to many, including that girl I once dated.) I don’t think I know a single person with gay grandparents — they’re still a relative rarity in the real world. Christopher Plummer’s remarkable performance in Beginners was the first time I’d seen a gay octogenarian fall in love, mapping the potentials of queer happiness and fulfillment in old age. Performances like his, and like Tomlin’s in Grandma, serve as an affirming blueprint for queer youth — not only can they hope to make it out of the terrorizing halls of high school; they can hope to grow old with someone someday. I don’t quite qualify as queer youth anymore, but I, too, am grateful for that promise.
In the final scenes, we leave Elle outside of Olivia’s house in a moment when she isn’t grandmothering, but looking back on the life she built with a woman for 38 years, grappling with her grief, making an attempt to be kind in spite of that grief. She's thinking about the relationships, and the work, still ahead. She proves to be more than a grandma. She’s more, even, than a gay feminist poet. She is more, yet all. Imagine that.