Unless you're Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton, good, complex leading roles for Actresses of a Certain Age can be hard to come by. Which is why it's refreshing that we have two movies opening this week that don't star either Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep but are centered on and starring women who said goodbye to their 20's a while ago.
Of course, the other truism is that once an actress hits forty they are no longer cast as love interests and are instead cast as mothers. So, naturally, anything over 50 must means it's time for the grandma roles! Enter Lily Tomlin in Grandma. She plays a lesbian poet named Ellie Reid. Still grieving over the death of her partner of over 30 years, she's depressed, angry, and at times, cruel, especially to her current, younger girlfriend (Judy Greer), who's had enough and is leaving her. An already bad day gets worse when her teenage granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at her door needing $600 to help pay for an abortion she's already scheduled for later in the day.
In a (in)convenient twist, Ellie has just paid off and cut up all her credit cards and currently only has forty bucks to her name, but neither women wants to go to Sage's intense mother (Marcia Gay Harden) for help. This dilemma sends the two of them on a Los Angeles-based road trip in an attempt to scrounge up the money by cashing in some old debts, selling some old books, and forcing the jerky boyfriend to pay a share of the responsibility.
Abortion is obviously a controversial topic, but the movie doesn't dance around it, and also doesn't skirt the issue by giving the teenager a convenient miscarriage. Instead, the emotions around such a decision are represented honestly, and respectfully.
Lily Tomlin is simply phenomenal as the very liberal, short-tempered grandma. She hasn't been in a lot of movies of late, so it's easy to forget that while she's best known for her comedic work, she's always been a fine dramatic actress--even garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in Robert Altman's Nashville. And if there's any justice to the Academy's nominations this year (wishful thinking!) she'll get a Best Actress nod for Grandma. I'd also love writer and director Paul Weitz to get some kind of nomination as well, if only because it's seems impossible that such a proudly feminist movie could come from the director of American Pie.
Patricia Clarkson hasn't reached grandma-roles status yet, but she's definitely had her fair share of mom roles, and she plays another in Learning to Drive. (Her daughter is played by Grace Gummer, whose mother is, yes, Meryl Streep. We can't escape!) Like Tomlin in Grandma, Clarkson is facing a difficult situation--a divorce, after her husband falls in love with a younger woman--and deals with it by getting in a car. As a New Yorker, she's never learned to drive, and has always relied on public transportation and her husband to get her where she needs to go.
Enter Ben Kingsley as Darwan, an Indian Sikh who works as a cab driver and a driving instructor. Darwan has some life challenges as well: the every day racism and harassment associated with being a Sikh in America, and his newly arranged marriage to a woman (Sarita Choudhury) his sister picked out for him.
In Grandma, the act of sitting and driving in a car leads to funny, intense, and often revelatory conversation between the women of two generations. But in Learning to Drive, the conversations and "lessons" exchanged by both feel too scripted; life lessons disguised as driving lessons, deliberate and contrived. When Lily Tomlin learns something about herself in Grandma we believe it, and it feels genuine. Learning to Drive is pleasant enough, and Patricia Clarkson is always fun to watch. But when it comes to ladies of a certain age steering their own movies? Grandma's the better ride.