It’s been a while since we’ve seen Lily Tomlin in a starring role on the big screen, and she’s still a refreshing presence, even if her role is not exactly comedic.
She plays Elle Reid, an earthy kind of Grandma, a crusty independent who lives her own life and doesn’t really have much to do with her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who’s a little too straight-arrow and conventional for Elle. You see, Elle has decided, in her old age, that she’s gay, or, the way she puts it, she’s decided to quit deceiving herself about who she is (not to mention those around her). So she was in a long-time relationship with Violet, who meant so much to her that she had her name tattooed on her wrist (but not her daughter’s name). But Violet is dead now, and we meet Elle when she’s trying to end her next lesbian relationship, with Olivia (Judy Greer), who’s younger, and very attractive, but somehow could just never measure up to the ghost of Violet. Oh, and Elle has also, impulsively, cut up all her credit cards, and paid off all her debts, so she owns her old house and her old car and that’s about all she has. Her once-prolific career as an avant-garde poet is a distant memory. But she’s happy with herself, and enjoys, a little too much, playing the curmudgeon with everyone else. A career curmudgeon, after all, can get away with a little relational con game: either you play along with her, in which case you not only happily accept all the verbal abuse but also hopelessly try to cheer her up all the time, or else you choose not to play along, in which case you’re just not in her social circle, anyway. A fun gig if you can get it. Just ask Oscar the Grouch.
But all the dynamics suddenly change when Judy’s daughter, Sage (Julia Garner) suddenly shows up at Grandma’s door, and asks for her help. She needs money for an abortion. And she doesn’t want to go to Judy for it. Elle does have a heart, because it melts over her granddaughter’s importunity. Elle has almost forgotten how to be nice to people, so she’s not exactly sweet and kind, even to Sage in her predicament, but she nevertheless resolves to go out and find the money somehow. And Sage tags along like a sad-sack Exhibit A.
Understandably, Elle doesn’t have a huge circle of friends. And the ones she does claim don’t see her very often. But she gamely tries to collect an old debt from a tattoo artist, who claims she’s broke but would be glad to offer a free tattoo. Then Elle tries to borrow money from an old boyfriend, Karl (Sam Elliott), but that opens a lot of old emotional wounds that have festered since before Sage was even born.
It’s a strange kind of quest. They say that there are three things that define a true friend: one who will let you borrow a car, or give you a ride to the airport, or lend you money. Jesus put it this way: “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” (Matthew 6:21)