Lily Tomlin's New Film Is the Latest Abortion Comedy That's Humanizing a Major Issue
Eight years ago, Juno MacGuff made a choice. In Juno, the character (played by Ellen Page) visited an abortion clinic with the full intention to terminate her pregnancy. Then she met an anti-abortion protester named Su-Chin.
"Your baby probably has a beating heart, you know," Su-Chin shouted. "And it has fingernails." The revelation surprised Juno, and sure enough, she walked out of the clinic not five minutes later.
In Grandma, the Lily Tomlin movie that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is currently screening at Tribeca, Sage (Julia Garner) is an 18-year-old who's 10 weeks pregnant and decides to have an abortion. It's a heavy choice she doubts, and sure enough, on her way into the clinic with her feisty grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin) they're faced with mother-and-daughter protesters.
Your baby has fingernails, one of them pleads, just like Su-Chin. "Not until 22 weeks," Elle spits back. Then the daughter protester punches Elle in the face. It's a long story — and a funny one.
Grandma is not Juno. It substitutes pop culture references for biting profanity. Its characters constantly try to justify themselves, but the film never does. It is the latest comedy that finds humor in the often difficult to discuss subject of abortion. And it may be the most important genre of film to come about in years.
"Abortion comedy" feels like a recipe for disaster: How can one make jokes out of such a difficult decision? Even if it were possible, it surely wouldn't be socially responsible. Yet what makes Grandma so great is how deftly it makes the situation funny without making abortion a joke. It's often light, but lets darker moments be dark. The film's tone glides through transitions smoothly and organically.
In many ways, it's reminiscent of last year's abortion comedy Obvious Child. The films share much in their DNA, from their crass senses of humor to their focus on female protagonists. But what bonds the films the most is how carefully they're crafted to make jokes about their protagonists but not their choices.
Obvious Child's protagonist never hesitates about getting an abortion. Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is not ready to be a mother, and that's that. Though she's initially concerned about what sperm supplier and one-night-stand Max (Jake Lacy) will think of her choice, the film never stops emphasizing whose choice it is: hers.
As a stand-up comic by trade, Donna jokes about everything, including the ill-chosen date for her abortion (Valentine's Day, hardly romantic). Yet Obvious Child also features a serious conversation between woman and doctor about the procedure. Donna wants to be sure she's making an educated choice. There's a level of responsibility while still making its audience roar with laughter.
Movies like Obvious Child and Grandma make talking about abortion easier, and that's invaluable. This is a topic that often leads to screaming matches posing as debates, not level-headed discussions. We need to be able to talk about abortions in a serious but reasonable way. Abortion comedies will, slowly but surely, help us get there by normalizing the conversations.
What makes Grandma so great is how deftly it makes the situation funny without making abortion a joke.
Grandma is a superb film, and not just thanks to its strength as an abortion comedy. The narrative explores intergenerational relationships, both familial and romantic, between formidable women. Several of the sequences, as Elle and Sage search for money to fund the abortion, are emotionally devastating. Tomlin is ferocious as Elle, tearing into it with equal parts delight and spite, but the ensemble is strong across the board. Laverne Cox plays a trans woman whose characterization is not solely about being a trans woman. Most of all, the film is hilarious, almost immediately demanding a re-watch.
It isn't just a great movie, though. It's part of a greater movement. That's why, among all the reasons it's worth celebrating, Grandma should be elevated to a higher plane of appreciation and respect.
Correction: April 27, 2015