Grandma opens with a breakup, a rather vicious one: Seventy-ish poet Elle (Lily Tomlin) is calling it quits with a younger woman we quickly ascertain is her girlfriend -- it's the sort of breakup where, believing you know where a relationship is headed, you drive the knife in farther and deeper than you need to, preemptively wounding your partner more than he or she could ever hurt you. The girlfriend, Olivia (Judy Greer), stands dumbstruck. Writing poetry is all about paring language to the essential minimum, and we've learned just how good Elle is at cutting people down, too.
This is just the beginning of the tart, subterranean grandeur Tomlin, who has always been a marvelous actress but who hasn't had a leading role in nearly 30 years, brings to Grandma. Tomlin fills out the role like a tree spreading its branches and roots, though she brings a superb lightness to it, too: Elle's acidity often has a comic kick -- for her, wisecracks aren't just a defense mechanism but a means of surviving the worst.
And she needs those wisecracks, perhaps now more than ever: Her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up on her doorstep, announcing that she's pregnant and needs $600 for an abortion. Sage is so ethereal-looking you almost can't quite believe she could conceive a human child. But Elle's low on funds herself. The two pile into Elle's car, a bumptiously elegant 1955 Dodge Royal, in search of the money. During this road trip, a thorny, multi-dead-end map of family resentments is laid out. Elle seems not to care that she has caused pain -- and yet she betrays, in the smallest of ways, that she does care.