Though Lily Tomlin hasn’t been a driving force in the entertainment industry since the 80s, she’s having a tremendous year. Previously, you’ve seen her pop up in films and television when her unique brand of goofy/straight-laced comedy is needed most; as the amorous Miss Hathaway in The Beverly Hillbillies; as the adventurous Ms. Frizzle on The Magic School Bus; as the surly, liberal mother of Tina Fey in Admission. This year, her hit Netflix series with Jane Fonda, Grace and Frankie, became a big success and marked Tomlin’s return to starring roles. Now, after 27 years of supporting roles in film, the comedic legend is receiving acclaim for her starring role in Peter Weitz’s Sundance submission, Grandma. Co-starring with Tomlin is rising starlet Julia Garner, and the blend of veteran comedienne and contemporary actress is proving a winning combination.
Grandma is the creative offspring of director and writer Paul Weitz. Together with his brother Chris, the duo has directed films like American Pie and About a Boy. In his solo career, Paul has written and directed movies like In Good Company and American Dreamz. He also directed Tomlin in her last film, Admission. In fact, it was meeting and spending time with Tomlin that spurred Weitz to make Grandma, saying, “After meeting Lily, the voice and the character really clicked. I had thought about it for years, so I had a lot of it worked out in my head, and then I just went to a coffee shop and wrote it longhand.” No surprise, considering the many similarities between Tomlin and her character in the film, Ellie Reid.
Ellie is a feisty, no-nonsense, lesbian poet whose wife has recently passed away. She’s receded from society and lost contact with her daughter, Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who’s her polar opposite: snobby, uptight, and unfeeling. In fact, she’s lost contact with most of her family and friends until her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), comes knocking on her door, asking for $630. Ellie soon discovers that Sage is pregnant by her stoner, slacker boyfriend Cam (Natt Wolf), who has refused to support his girlfriend. Ellie and Sage then spend the rest of the day trying to raise money from Ellie’s old friends, including selling books to store owner Olivia (Judy Greer); shaking down tattoo artist Deathy (Laverne Cox); and visiting successful ex-hippie Karl (Sam Elliott). Along the way, Sage will teach Ellie that there are some people worth caring about, and Ellie will teach Sage how to grow up tough in an often unforgiving world.
It’s a lesson that Tomlin undoubtedly helped Garner learn off-screen, as well. At age 21, Julia Garner is a relative lamb in Hollywood’s den of lions. She received her big break at the tender age of 17, appearing in Sean Durkin’s cult thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene. She had a small role in The Perks of Being a Wallflower before receiving a prominent role in the American remake We Are What We Are, as the daughter in a family of cannibals. Garner received more recognition for roles in The Last Exorcism Part II and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, but her role in Grandma is probably her most talented to date. With her career on the rise, Garner is not only learning what it’s like to be an actress, but to be a terrific one. Her demure, “deer-in-the-headlights” portrayal contrasts excellently with Tomlin’s abrasive character, making for an extremely entertaining on-screen duo.
Grandma is now playing in select theaters; find showtimes and tickets here.