Sunday, October 18, 2015
A few calendar pages back we showed the documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry, a look at the intelligent, passionate, pissed off, and unstoppable women who propelled the equal rights movement of the late 60s. They knew the status quo had to change and actually believed that it could change – that they could change it. And they spun the world like a damned top. But for all those triumphs, the doc ends on a contemporary downer: more than forty years later, so many of the achievements of that time and those people are still being confoundingly rescinded, rights that had seemingly been won are turning out to be just loans that need constant renewal.
In Grandma, Lily Tomlin's Elle feels like she's just come from being interviewed for the above-mentioned documentary. A respected and widely-anthologized poet and a feminist in her prime, Elle has been reduced, in the eyes of most people around her, to an eccentric crank. She's a veteran who fought in a different sort of war; still alive but mostly invisible in the changed world she contributed to. We meet Elle just as she breaks up with her younger girlfriend and not long after her granddaughter Sage visits, needing help paying for an abortion. Broke herself, the two set out to raise the $630 before Sage's 5:45pm appointment.
The comedic set-up is that Elle is an out of touch curmudgeon, railing against modernity. But as Elle and Sage drive around town, shaking money trees to cover the procedure – which is a non-issue in the film – it becomes clear that grandma's righteous grouchiness is not your run-of-the-mill septuagenarian opposition. The fact that Sage's choice to have an abortion is not a dramatic element of Grandma points to the actual underlying drama of the film. Sage's freedom of choice, the fact that the cost of the procedure and not the procedure itself is the animating conflict here, is thanks to the strife and sacrifice of Elle and all the women like her. But now, two generations later, the pugnacity required to spurn on such epochal change sticks out like a pissed-off thumb in the changed society.
Except change, as both She's Beautiful When She's Angry and Grandma tells us, is never final. It needs to be constantly held and defended, and, sadly, every new generation needs to be made aware of the work required to hold the ground achieved by their grandmas.