We meet Elle (Lily Tomlin), a poet, a feminist in her 70s with a cult following, cruelly breaking up with her younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer) after their relationship of a few months, then crying in the shower. That isn’t the one that mattered. Violet is the one that mattered. It lasted 36 years, and then Vi died.
Elle is wearing an honors cap and gown and going over old photos when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives with a problem. She’s pregnant, she needs $630, and she has an appointment for an abortion in eight hours.
Why wouldn’t she think her independent, successful grandma would be the one to turn to? Well, she’s not. She was sick and tired of being in debt for Vi’s medical bills, so she paid off all her debts and she now has $40. And she cut up all her credit cards and made wind chimes out of them.
This role seemed created for Lily Tomlin. That’s because it was. Writer and director Paul Weitz (“Admission,” “Being Flynn,” “About A Boy”) had the story idea for many years, but it never really fully formed until he met and worked with Tomlin on the film “Admission,” saying that “After meeting Lily, the voice and the character really clicked. I had thought about it for years, so I had a lot of it worked out in my head, and then I just went to a coffee shop and wrote it longhand.”
Elle asks Sage whether she’s really thought it over…Yes. What about the father… No. Well, he has to take some responsibility. He’ll be the first stop on this intergenerational buddy movie.
Off they go in a temperamental 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer (Tomlin’s own car) to see Cam (Nat Wolff), the father, a total idiot who makes the mistake of insulting not just Sage, but Elle. He’s more interested in playing living-room hockey than being polite or responsible. Elle’s had enough, and the hockey stick ends up in, well, a very uncomfortable place on his body. (Why didn’t the audience applaud?)
Elle decides to sell some valuable first editions – Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir. She can’t believe Sage has never heard of “The Feminine Mystique.” (Neither could I. I said “She wasn’t raised well.” I think I said it out loud.)
Deathy (Laverne Cox) at the store owes Elle money – but doesn’t have it, and offers tattoos. And the books aren’t worth anywhere near what Elle thinks.
Next stop is a visit to Karl (Sam Elliott), whom Elle hasn’t seen in a very, very long time. There’s a bit of awkwardness considering Elle lived with him on a boat then left without a word in the dead of night many years ago.
Oh no, now they have to see Judy – Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom. Superachieving, judgmental, negative. Played perfectly by Marcia Gay Harden. When they arrive, Judy is working in her office – at a treadmill desk.
The movie is not political, but it is about strength and resilience, mixed with a lot of humor. It is unapologetic because it doesn’t need to be. It’s among the best of Lily Tomlin, and it’s not to be missed.