When your reproductive justice work is mostly either writing a doctoral dissertation or getting up rudely early on Saturdays to stare down protestors hellbent on disrupting the medical care of total strangers, it’s pretty great to be asked to go to the pictures for the cause instead. When you’re asked to go to the pictures to see Grandma, starring Lily Tomlin, it ends up being a lot more than that (especially if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a cinema that serves grilled cheese sandwiches, but I digress).
The first time I read about Grandma, the blurb tried to skirt around the fact that the entire film is about a young woman having an abortion. It did, perhaps deliberately, a fairly poor job – it was obvious enough to heighten my interest, having paused to find out more because of the wonderful cast – and it’s such a shame that anyone felt the need to gloss over the central story. It’s not, however, remotely surprising. One of the many delightful things about the titular character is that she speaks frankly, unashamedly and loudly about abortion, and the horrified reactions she provokes are funny in part because they’re familiar.
That the film tells a relatable and warm story about abortion is far from the only thing that makes it compelling. The almost entirely female cast is excellent, with some especially fantastic smaller parts, and it’s hilarious and sweet and affirming. Lily Tomlin has been deservedly acclaimed for her performance as Elle, and Julia Garner is a revelation as her granddaughter Sage. Their conversations are an absolute delight – they have an exchange, with Marcia Gay Harden who plays their daughter and mother respectively, in their final scene together that made the entire cinema roar with laughter in the middle of an otherwise poignant moment.
My main quibble with the film comes with the scenes that continue to follow Elle after she’s said goodbye to Sage. They’re a slightly too neat wrapping up of plot threads that were wholly charming in their messiness. But it seems impossible not to fall in love with Grandma – the film or the character – and thus hard to begrudge them a happy ending.
And it is in having a straightforward abortion procedure – delivered by poised and gentle providers – be part of a story’s happy ending that this zesty little film is still radical. Released in the US the day before a nationwide campaign of protests at Planned Parenthood clinics across the country, which drew crowds of hundreds to many of their facilities on top of the regular Saturday morning gauntlets, Grandma shines a light on many possible obstacles to terminating a pregnancy. In this story, the main challenge is financial, but Elle and Sage also have to contend with the judgement of strangers and people who could otherwise have helped them, an unsupportive partner, accessible services having been shut down and limited appointments or long waits at those that remain, and transport issues, all of which may delay or even prevent access to abortion care for far too many patients even where it is legally available.
As they would at many clinics in the US, and in some places in the UK, they also encounter protestors outside the clinic. While the particular experience that Elle has with them is (hopefully) atypical, it’s shamefully true to life that clinic protestors may slow down access to abortion care and leave a lasting, upsetting impression on both patients and those who accompany them to their appointments. In reality, there are often many more protestors than those depicted in the film, equipped both with far more graphic signs and with anything from misleading pamphlets to rosaries with plastic foetus beads. They are also, outside hundreds of the clinics they protest in the US, watched closely, and as much as possible prevented from obstructing patients and staff, by volunteer Clinic Escorts. And while it is a little bit of a shame that we didn’t get to see that support in action in Grandma, the amazing network of defenders and activists dedicated to protecting and extending abortion access is a cause for celebration and hope – and so is this film, because it tells a story about abortion, and it does it with famous actors at high profile festivals, and it helps move the conversation forward while also just being thoroughly enjoyable, moving and memorable.
Emily Bishop, Emily is a Doctoral Fellow at Columbia University in New York, where her research focuses on women teachers and reproductive health education in emergencies. She is also a volunteer Clinic Escort with the New York Coalition for Abortion Clinic Defense.
Grandma UK release date is now set for November 27th