The film begins with Elle, a semi-famous poet whose work has been taught in women’s studies classes, unceremoniously dumping her much younger girlfriend Olivia. Soon, Elle’s teenaged granddaughter Sage comes calling: She needs $600 for an abortion, scheduled for that evening. Elle doesn’t have the money; she’s waiting on a check, and, having recently paid off all her debts, she celebrated by cutting up her credit cards and turning them into wind chimes.
Collecting the cash for the abortion is the film’s engine; the roadster is an old Dodge Royal (Tomlin’s own car in real life), into which grandma and granddaughter pile, crisscrossing Los Angeles in order to pull the funds together. Along the way, they hit up Elle’s friends, exes, and, eventually—having exhausted all other roads—Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mother Judy. Overcaffeinated and Type A, Judy is somewhat estranged from Elle, and both grandmother and granddaughter are admittedly terrified of her. Along the way, Sage learns more about her grandma than she ever could have expected.
From the start, the abortion is handled with a kind of understated complexity that’s still exceedingly rare on film. There are no grand speeches, nor is there any question that it should be an option, safe and available, or that it is likely the best choice for Sage, who is still in high school, wants to go to college, and has a terrible boyfriend.
Still, while Sage’s decision is quickly accepted, it is not assumed. When Sage first tells Elle she’s pregnant and has decided on abortion, Elle says, “You’ve thought about it, right? Because it’s something you’ll probably think about, at least once, every day for the rest of your life.”
One gets the impression that Grandma knows of what she speaks.
Turns out—spoiler alert—she does.
We learn this in a searing scene at a visit of last resort to see Karl (a de-whiskered, un-cowboy-hatted Sam Elliott), a long-ago ex of Elle’s. The reunion is filled with tension and steam and is loaded with unfinished business and not-entirely-healed wounds. He’s still furious; she insists it was her body, her life. Elle needed to untie herself from their relationship so she could finally accept herself and live according to who she really was—but she hurt a man she loved, and who loved her.
All too often, unplanned pregnancies in TV or movies either end in a convenient out by way of miscarriage or a child. The latter happens in the oft-maligned Knocked Up, which famously didn’t even include the word abortion—the only character who seemingly realized it was an option refuses to say it by name, instead calling it “smasmorshion.” (Apatowian family values die hard.)
Of course, there are exceptions, like last year’s Obvious Child, or episodes of “Friday Night Lights” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” But fear of controversy rules, and generally speaking, an unplanned pregnancy serves as either a quickie dose of drama in an ongoing storyline (and ends in miscarriage), or a central plot driver about the woman (or couple) who is now having a baby. In either case, though, even if the outcome was unchanged, a simple conversation acknowledging the option remains unusual.
But that fear goes the other way, too, as if acknowledging any nuance is conceding ground to anti-choice zealots (and, hey, fair enough: that ground is constantly under attack).
Grandma gets into the weeds. It’s bold enough to say that abortion can be hard and painful and maybe even one of those choices a woman questions years down the road—and that it can still be the right choice, and that it absolutely should be available, to every woman, as a choice. And that every woman’s situation is different—that for some, the decision can be pretty darn straightforward. And that that’s okay, too.
But to slap the “abortion movie” label on Grandma feels like a huge injustice, because it is about so much more. It’s about how an aging feminist feels when she looks around and sees what has and hasn’t changed. At one point, strategizing about the money back at her place, Elle decides she’ll sell some books—first editions of The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex. She’s shows them to Sage, who has never heard of them, and wonders if The Feminine Mystique was one of the X-Men. When Sage googles how much they might be worth, Elle is stunned at the low number.
She’s equally stunned at how expensive Sage’s abortion will be. She’s exasperated that where a free woman’s health clinic once stood, there is now a coffee shop slinging overpriced lattes. But at the clinic, she’s relieved when the doctor reassures her that Sage’s abortion won’t be painful.
“Mine hurt,” Elle says. Hers was performed in a basement by someone “who said he went to medical school.”
Grandma is about grief, about idealism, about aging, about intergenerational relationships between women. That something can be both right and painful, that there are no easy choices, that the past is never past, that we will let ourselves and our loved ones down, that our loved ones will let us down, that the world will disappoint us in its stubborn reluctance to change in the ways we once believed it would—all of these truths rumble throughout alongside the churn of the Dodge’s engine as the pair wind their way to the clinic.
And Grandma is also about that very specific brand of awe that hits us when we realize that our parents and grandparents are people too. That they’ve lived lives every bit as full, and full of drama, as our own. Bitter, sour, salty and sweet, Tomlin’s Elle hits all the notes. Far more than the abortion issue, it’s the richness in the portrait of this grandma—let that sink in: an entire movie about a grandma—that really makes Grandma revolutionary.
Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter@Shannon_BKelley.