It's not a great start to the day for Elle (Lily Tomlin) as she has a blazing row with her much younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) in which she calls her an afterthought to her most valued relationship, the one she had with Violet who died not so long ago; they were together almost forty years. Although Elle embraces her own cantankerous nature, the fact remains she really misses Vi and is struggling to allow anyone else into her life, so Olivia bears the brunt of that and is told to leave, which she does in tears. But Elle is in tears soon enough, and miserably sinks into nostalgia for her academic career, which she turned to after gaining fame as a poet, though just as she is lost in her memories there is a knock at her front door: it's her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) with news...
Bad news, as it turns out, for Sage is pregnant and seeking money to pay for an abortion, not being able to ask her formidable mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) for the funds. Elle does not get on well with her daughter, but it is significant that Sage came to her looking for help, as she does seem to have her head screwed on in the teenager's view, or at least she does until she tells the girl she cut up her credit cards and has spent almost all her money on paying off her debts so she could taste financial freedom. Was she right or is this another error on her part? The question was pressing because if Grandma was about anything, it's that you don't go through life without making mistakes, and heaven knows these three generations of women have done that.
Can they admit it to themselves, however? If this is starting to sound marginally less cheery than Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers, then rest assured this was not all downbeat, as writer and director Paul Weitz, returning to his indie roots with a film crafted around the talents of his leading lady, made sure to include a bunch of jokes as well. Most raised a chuckle, with a few very funny indeed, all delivered by a cast who were obviously pleased to be playing something a little different, more flavourful than your average indie comedy drama, and much of that humour was stemming from the personality of the piece and the people within. That said, it was patently Tomlin's show all the way since she was in practically every scene and dominated the work with hard-edged and witty aplomb.
Not to say that everyone else in the film wilted before the star, as in episodic manner Elle and Sage have to hit the road to try and raise the money for the termination from anyone but the one person who really would be able to lend it to them, Judy. The father of the foetus is no help and is amusing beaten up by Elle when she accuses him of being a deadbeat; you could observe he has made mistakes too, but the film is far less forgiving of him since he couldn't care less about the consequences. On the other side of the coin is Elle's ex-husband Karl (Sam Elliott making the most of his relatively brief screen time) who still bears a grudge that she aborted his potential offspring without telling him, for reasons he will always have trouble understanding, another example of the wreckage you can leave behind you if you're not careful.
But the point here was that wreckage, those broken hearts and friendships, were inevitable whichever end of them you are on, and Elle was no saint so while she is presented as more vulnerable than her aggressive demeanour might initially indicate, it was important that we saw almost everyone here, even the one scene wonders, as three-dimensional human beings, and if nothing else this was a very satisfying array of actors and actresses bringing that out with what they were offered by Weitz, which at times was plenty, but at others just enough. At around eighty minutes this was very far from an epic, and you may be left wanting more or simply feeling you were not given enough, but as a small yet carefully formed and nurtured drama with jokes there was something neat and just right about how little it had to use, but how much it had to say with it. Probably a film for actor fanciers rather than someone who wanted issues to be thoroughly discussed, but that cast was full of gems and you had the impression a certain peace of mind was possible even for someone as hard to get along with as Elle. Music by Joel P. West.