Grandma is an excellent film, featuring an equally excellent performance from the hilarious and hell-raising Lily Tomlin in the titular role. As her pregnant teenage granddaughter Sage, Julia Garner makes a pitch-perfect breakout, but she’s not the only one to escape the confines of Tomlin’s considerable shadow. Sage and grandma Elle roadtrip alone together through much of the runtime, but Judy Greer appears in a handful of extremely memorable scenes as Elle’s erstwhile girlfriend. In the quality of writing and acting, Grandma makes a stark contrast to Freeheld, another recent film to prominently feature a lesbian relationship. Despite Greer’s comparative low profile, she excels the more celebrated Julianne Moore and Ellen Page.
Greer is best known for a slew of supporting roles in films including 13 Going on 30 (2004), 27 Dresses (2008), and Love and Other Drugs (2010), and has even riffed on her repeated casting as “the best friend” in a short film titled Judy Greer is the Best Friend, and by titling her 2014 book I Don’t Know What You Know Me From. Yet she’s no small actress, and even if offered parts up front, according to Alexander Payne who directed her in The Descendants, Greer always auditions for roles first to test whether she’s right for them. Despite the “best friend” pattern this has led to a diverse body of work; Greer’s it-girl-turned-super-bitch in 13 Going on 30, for example, couldn’t be further from the qualities her character brings to Grandma.
In Grandma, Greer’s Olivia has been dating the decades-older Elle, yet is acutely aware that she’ll always be second fiddle to Elle’s deceased long-term partner Violet. This is first broached in the film’s striking opening scene, in which Tomlin and Greer sow the seeds of an emotional arc that will ricochet through the film to become a robust B-plot underlying the journey Sage and Elle take.
As an acting duo and as a fictional couple, Tomlin and Greer’s chemistry rests on their intelligence and ability to spar verbally. It is such an exchange that opens Grandma, with Elle attempting to accelerate their break up and Olivia criticising her for a lack of openness throughout their short relationship. There’s a rehearsed quality to the first few lines of dialogue but as tempers and emotions rise the drama feels more natural. Elle continues her habit of pushing Olivia away by alluding to the deeper love she experienced with Violet: “try being with someone for 38 years”. If Elle and Olivia’s relationship is depicted as a verbal battle, Elle is the most brutal attacker here, assigning Greer a reactionary role, something she’s perhaps used to from her turns as various “best friends”. Greer is a master of reactions, and her facial expressions are so genuine, so seemingly instantaneous, that you feel you’re a part of the conversation.
Elle dismisses her short-lived romance with Olivia by contrasting it to her earlier, and much longer relationship: “you’re a footnote”. The cruelty, registered in Greer’s furrowed brow, is shocking. With a slight raise of the eyebrows or a tip of the head, Greer conveys the true weight of emotion between Elle and Olivia. However much Elle might downplay their relationship, Greer’s reactions show how strong it is. Such moments of intense emotional truth haunt the rest of the film; the question of what her relationship with Olivia meant to Elle is recalled, for instance, as she and Sage bicker over the meaning of Elle’s new ‘O’ tattoo. Greer can also exhibit teary-voiced sadness and angry flashing eyes within a matter of moments, giving a layered presentation of Olivia’s emotional response to Elle’s harsh treatment.
Structurally, Elle’s relationship with Olivia gives as much to Grandma as her road trip and abortion-fund-making with Sage. Their emotional arc is embedded into the more obvious plotline, first with the tattoo and secondly when Elle and Sage’s trip to a local café – intended purely as another money-making coup – precipitates a ‘chance’ meeting with Olivia. Incredulous, Olivia is visibly exasperated by Elle’s presence, and despite the sad tone of the larger situation, her increasing distraction and subsequent neglect of the café’s sole customer lends it a comic edge. Still, Greer’s acting here is rich in subtext, with a pain behind her eyes which seems to stem from the sad irony of meeting Sage only after her break up with Elle – it’s yet another way Elle has refused to let her in.
As in the earlier scene, Greer demonstrates her remarkable ability to flip from showing one primary emotional state to a wildly different one – here it’s hurt, then a sarcastic comment that builds to an explosive release of all the anger she’s feeling. Greer uses her whole body to express this, with veins protruding in her neck as Olivia shouts escalating insults at Elle, ending cathartically with the targeted “writer-in-residence”. She knows it’ll hit a nerve – as Elle later confirms – so it functions as a neat revenge to Elle’s earlier “footnote” insult. The scene culminates with Olivia turning sharply and waddling quickly – and hilariously – back into the café, her anger clear for all to see.
After two angry walk-outs, the final scene between Elle and Olivia is a kind of reconciliation. Elle shows up on Olivia’s doorstep at the end of her long day with Sage, ostensibly to give Olivia some prized books. Of course, Olivia can see right through her, and where an inferior script and actor would have used unnecessary dialogue, Greer uses a frustrated and provocative expression to finally coax some honesty out of Elle. They have come full circle, with Elle stating that she wants Olivia to experience a decades-long relationship too, something she had earlier used as a badge of superiority.
Grandma is a delicate act of balance and structuring, and Elle and Olivia’s relationship plays a significant part in this. With a heavyweight like Tomlin in the lead role, another skilled actor was needed to bring the necessary gravitas to the relationship. In tandem with Paul Weitz’s finely crafted screenplay, Greer was able to shine alongside Tomlin. Nobody makes Judy Greer a footnote.