Lily Tomlin — comedian, activist, national treasure and natural wonder — deftly balances a dazzling star turn and deeply felt character study in “Grandma.” Like its unassuming title, this small, closely observed movie is deceptively modest in scope and tone. Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a feminist poet and retired college professor whose comfortably secluded life is momentarily upended by a visit from her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner). The 18-year-old has discovered that she’s pregnant, and she has an appointment for a termination later that day. But the girl’s mother recently confiscated her credit card. Sage needs $600 by the afternoon, and her grandmother is the only friend she can turn to.
“Grandma” follows the two women as they call on friends and acquaintances throughout Los Angeles, a classic journey made all the more schematic by the fact that they’re traveling in a vintage Dodge once owned by Elle’s late partner, Violet. Still mired in the spiky, angry slough of grief, Elle refuses to give Sage any cuddly reassurance in the face of her plight. “It’s nothing to dance a jig about,” she snaps, when Sage seeks a comforting word. Later, when she takes her granddaughter to a free women’s health care clinic, only to discover it’s become an upscale cafe, she goes into a coffee-spilling tirade. “Where can you get a reasonably priced abortion these days?” she barks angrily.
Although reproductive choice is one theme of “Grandma,” this is not an abortion comedy in the tradition of “Citizen Ruth” or “Obvious Child.” Rather, in the sensitive hands of writer- director Paul Weitz, it becomes a wry, even melancholy meditation on aging, self-knowledge and acceptance. There’s an amusing subtext having to do with the morphology of feminism over the past 40 years: When Elle tries to sell a first-edition Betty Friedan book at a women’s bookstore, Sage thinks “The Feminine Mystique” is a character from the X-Men. But the clue to the movie’s core meaning can be found in its very first scene, when Elle is breaking up with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer). After an impressively literary shouting match (“Solipsist!” “Writer-in-residence!”), Elle confesses, “Yeah, well, I’m a horrible person.” It’s a sarcastic remark, but a telling one, that becomes fully explained in a shattering scene, when Elle visits a mysterious man from her past named Karl, played with laconic soulfulness by Sam Elliott.
Up until this point, “Grandma” has been a funny, somewhat bittersweet tour through Elle’s anger and prickly resignation. But when Tomlin and Elliott talk over a shared joint, an entire world opens up and “Grandma” takes on unexpected emotional depth and force. As definitive scenes go, it’s right up there with the greats: a delicate, finally devastating two-hander that holds its own as a one-act play or short film, with a lifetime of rue and regret culminating in a moment of utter heartbreak and contained fury.
Just when you think “Grandma” can never match that energy it does, when Marcia Gay Harden delivers just as assured and nuanced a performance as Sage’s mother and Elle’s daughter, Judy. As well served as she is by her supporting players, though, there’s no question that Tomlin owns “Grandma,” as she was meant to. Weitz wrote it for her after she appeared in his 2013 dramedy “Admission.” Like all of her greatest creations, Tomlin brings Elle to life with compassion and candid, sometimes withering knowingness.
Weitz begins his movie with an epigram from the poet Eileen Myles: “Time passes / That’s for sure.” Tomlin embodies that difficult, damnable truth with a sharp tongue and sharper elbows that only she could pull off and still be unquestionably lovable. Weitz has done Tomlin, her fans and the viewing public an enormous service, reminding us all that the woman we’ve come to think of fondly as Ernestine and Edith Anne is also the superbly expressive actress of “Nashville,” “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and, from now on, “Grandma.”
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity and some drug use. 80 minutes.