Divided into a series of book-like chapters, Grandma, a dark comedy that opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, commences with an "ending." Ellie (comedian Lily Tomlin in her first leading role since 1988's Big Business) is in the process of breaking up with Olivia (Judy Greer) her much-younger girlfriend. It's not going well. Clearly upset, Olivia asks Ellie to just tell her that she loves her. Ellie can't do it. She responds by telling Olivia that she was merely "a footnote." Ouch! It's an ugly scene that sets the tone for the film, a stark portrayal of a mean-spirited woman who has to come to terms with herself. Though not as over-the-top, think of Lily Tomlin's character as the female counterpoint to Johnny Knoxville's Bad Grandpa.
The turning point for Ellie comes when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up on her front doorstep. She's pregnant and doesn't have the cash for an abortion, so she hopes Ellie can help her out. Ellie doesn't have the money either, and the two embark on a wild ride around town as they try scrounge up a few hundred bucks. Along the way, Ellie pisses off just about everyone they meet. She gets tossed out of a coffee shop for disturbing the customers and infuriates an old flame (Sam Elliott) who says their past prevents him from helping her.
Eventually, it becomes apparent they need to see Sage's domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden), an overachiever who works from a treadmill desk so she can multi-task. Because Sage fears her mother and because Ellie doesn't speak to the woman, it's not an easy decision to make, but both Sage and Ellie know that they need to confront their fears in order to grow and change.
Tomlin gives a good performance as Ellie, but the character is often so mean-spirited and off-putting, it's hard to sympathize with her — even when she predictably softens at the film's end. But writer-director Paul Weitz deserves credit for putting the emphasis on story and character in this low-budget festival favorite.