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LA Film Festival Opens to Raves for Lily Tomlin in ‘Grandma’ – But Where’s the Energy?

The kickoff to a festival high on diversity is more low-key than it’s been in past years


Los Angeles Film Festival programmer Elvis Mitchell had to exhort the audience at the Regal Cinemas in downtown Los Angeles to get rowdier when he walked to the front of the theater on the festival’s opening night, and when he got to the microphone his opening line was, “Thank you for that tepid round of applause.”

The apparently dearth of enthusiasm shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the opening-night film, Paul Weitz‘s “Grandma,” was lacking, but it was emblematic of the most low-key kickoff that LAFF has seen in recent years.

In its sixth year at LA Live downtown, the opening screening saw more empty seats than usual in the Regal’s huge premiere house, and the post-screening party wasn’t as jam-packed as usual.

Then again, it’d be hard to top opening night in 2010, the fest’s first year downtown, when the opening-night film, “The Kids Are All Right,” went on to land a best-picture Oscar nomination after screening at the festival at exactly the same time that the Lakers were winning the NBA championship a block away.

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Since then, the festival has been trimmed from 11 days to nine, plus a couple of days of pre-fest screenings. This year’s opener had debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it was bought by Sony Pictures Classics, and also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, making it less of an event than some past openers.

But “Grandma” was still well-received in its Los Angeles premiere, drawing solid laughs and raves for Lily Tomlin‘s performance as a misanthropic woman who unexpectedly bonds with her granddaughter as they drive around Los Angeles trying to raise money for the girl’s abortion.

Afterwards, Tomlin accepted congratulations from a constant stream of admirers, along with fellow cast members Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, Marcia Gay Harden and Judy Greer, among others.

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While it’s premature to say that the role could put Tomlin in the running for a best-actress Oscar, the one award she needs to complete the Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony grand slam known as the EGOT, the respected veteran comic and actress is both very funny and very touching, and will certainly be part of the awards conversation once SPC releases the film in August.

The challenge for Film Independent, which puts on the festival, will now be to follow its low-key launch with eight days of enthusiasm for a lineup that has fewer studio premieres and more indie films that are completely unknown quantities to viewers.

Of course, that lineup could be stocked with gems — and LAFF has made a statement with a slate of films in which 40 percent are directed by women, and a similar number by people of color.

With diversity a burning issue in Hollywood, it can’t hurt for the hometown festival to make it a priority.