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REGIONAL DOUBLE-FEATURE SPEAKS TO, AND FOR, ADULT AUDIENCES

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Lily Tomlin in 'Grandma'

Lily Tomlin in ‘Grandma’

A couple of months ago, my wife and I, in search of a new Netflix series to binge-watch together, settled on Grace and Frankie, a mismatched buddy dramedy about two women thrust into an uncomfortable relationship once their spouses (best friends and partners in a successful law firm for decades) come out of the closet and express their desire to marry. Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston ease into the roles of the husbands, while Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are the respective wives.

My wife couldn’t fully embrace the premise, which to be fair is hindered by an adherence to sitcom conventions and some too-broad laughs, but I soldiered on, enthralled by the interplay between the female leads, in particular Tomlin, who banters well enough with Fonda, yet expresses a willingness to wander off on her own, even in the midst of scenes with others. As Frankie, she is totally at home in her own head and skin, showing us that sometimes the larger world is merely a necessary distraction.

Thankfully, Grace and Frankie is not the only chance we have to appreciate the oddball spirit that is Tomlin. She’s front and center for “Grandma,” the new film from writer-director Paul Weitz (“About a Boy”) and the first of an astonishing arthouse double feature. This time, her character Elle is a poet of some renown dealing with a harsh break-up with her new girlfriend (Judy Greer) when her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) comes to her seeking $600 to pay for an abortion. It turns out Elle hasn’t quite gotten over losing her beloved life-partner, which explains her issues with her new gal, but she’s not one to back away from a challenge, so she embarks on a meandering quest with Sage to secure the funds.

Once again, Tomlin remains loveably self-absorbed, a charming narcissist who, in less capable hands, would be insufferable—in fact, that is exactly how a male character with this trait would be seen. It is liberating in this case, and thoroughly engaging, to be in the presence of a woman (the real heroine of her own story) seeking to command her own life, yet still carving out space to protect and support others.

The second act of this women-centric playbill—“Learning to Drive”—features Patricia Clarkson as Wendy, a successful New York literary critic, whose cheating husband (Jake Weber) walks out on the marriage, forcing her to become more independent—and fast. Like the typical big city urban dweller, Wendy decides that learning to drive is the necessary first step. This plot point gets pushed along when she leaves a manuscript in the back of a cab and the driver, Darwan (Ben Kingsley), a Sikh who also happens to work as a driving instructor, delivers the package and becomes her Jedi-driving teacher.

The film starts off establishing the gentle clash of cultures between Wendy and Darwan, with an annoyingly obvious rom-com endgame in its future, but Clarkson, aided and abetted by Kingsley—as well as Spanish director Isabel Coixet (“My Life Without Me” and “The Secret Life of Words,” both featuring the ever-intriguing Sarah Polley) and writer Sarah Kernochan (“Nine ½ Weeks” and “Sommersby”)—slowly shifts the narrative towards something far more empowering for Wendy. The point was supposed to be about this character learning to stand on her own, so why not remain locked on that outcome?

And Clarkson makes this journey completely believable, guiding Wendy from the emotionally-frazzled early stages through to a well-earned sense of joy and psychologically satisfying decision-making that doesn’t undercut the character or the overall story.

Back in the day, Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin told us, in song, “sista’s are doin’ it for themselves,” and it’s taken some time, but at this moment, we can go to the arthouse and see a pair of women doing it, and driving home the feeling that this time, this moment, doesn’t have to be an isolated incident.