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'Thelma' is a Nonagenarian's Revenge Flick

From her Broadway debut in 1959’s Gypsy to an Oscar-nominated supporting performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2003), 94-year-old actress June Squibb has seemingly done it all — except lead her own feature film. Luckily, Josh Margolin offers her the role of a lifetime in his feature directorial debut Thelma (2024), the latest indie action comedy making quiet waves at the box office.

Squibb brings an endearing charm as the film’s titular matriarch, Thelma, a role Margolin based on his own grandmother. As Thelma knits or slowly pokes away at the keyboard in response to an email, Margolin’s direction paints the often mundane tasks of an elder with an element of grace and respect.

These scenes work nicely in the film’s introduction, where viewers also witness the backbone of the film’s emotionality: the relationship between Thelma and her 24-year-old grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger). Through Daniel’s reminders of how to properly use the computer and sweet reactions to their other generational differences, Margolin provides a relatable glimpse into a nostalgic connection. The two share not only a love for one another, but a common threat to their individuality: Daniel’s overbearing parents Gail and Alan (Parker Posey and Clark Gregg).

While overdramatic at times, Gail and Alan present an interesting dynamic to the film. Their heavy-handed parenting style demonstrates an ignorance of what may actually be hindering Daniel’s success. Whether it’s pressuring him to get back with his ex (Carol Peña) or renew his driver’s license, they do not stop to question the mental stress weighing on him. On the other hand, their excessive worries about Thelma put her seniority into question, resulting in an action hero-like defiance to prove to them, and herself, that she is capable of living independently.

Thelma becomes an action hero only after falling victim to a phone scam. An anonymous caller, pretending to be Daniel in a fake car accident, forwards Thelma to his “lawyer,” who asks for $10,000 to be dropped in a local P.O. box. With fear for his life, Thelma agrees and drops the money off for delivery.

When the family reconvenes, Gail and Alan brush it off as a one-time mistake. Even though Daniel, who prides himself on being his grandmother’s protector, says not to worry about it, Thelma knows that the only way to truly make it alright is by going after the scammers herself. So, with the eventual help of her old pal Ben (the late Richard Roundtree) and his motorized scooter, Thelma sets off to take down the criminals for good.

Much of Thelma’s comedy lies in the misadventures of Ben and Thelma scootering around suburban Los Angeles. Scenes of Thelma mistaking every elderly person as someone she recognizes or the duo hiding in plain sight to avoid her anxious family are humorous in delivery and stunt execution.

In one such sequence, Thelma and Ben visit their old acquaintance, Mona (Buddy Levine), in order to steal a gun from her house. The moment contains the intensity of a high-stakes action sequence once the stair-challenged Thelma begins her ascent up to Mona’s bedroom. Such death-defying moments are seen throughout Thelma, and each is given the same gravity as a Tom Cruise stunt in Mission: Impossible (1996), which Thelma cheekily references by name throughout the film. There is also compassion in these sequences, such as when Mona’s declining mental health is brought to Ben’s attention during his distraction ploy.

Ben’s awareness of their disadvantages as elders presents a necessary awakening for Thelma. She becomes so blinded by her individualistic desires that it takes someone who has lived as long a life as she has to remind her of her age. Outside of this, the two possess a playful banter emblematic of Squibb and Roundtree’s excellent chemistry, defying the many restrictions their ages place on them in Hollywood. Even with their eventual squabbles, common of such buddy cop pairings, the duo’s tenderness for one another is a massive highlight.

While not as central or engaging, Thelma’s family’s stressful Silver Alert also makes for some charming moments. Posey and Gregg bring enough wit to their know-it-all roles to elevate them beyond their one-dimensional characters. However, Hechinger’s performance as Daniel is easily one of the film’s best.

It is not hard to be sympathetic toward Daniel, who feels inadequate after seemingly failing his ex-girlfriend, parents, grandmother, and himself. He has a lot going on, and the immense pressure of his grandmother being on the run brings out his most wholesome qualities. Every time his character is on screen, Hechinger fully captures my attention. It is no easy task, especially when he is paired with comedy juggernauts like Nicole Byer, but he manages to pull through and steal the show.

The film’s climax is matched with similar action intensity as Thelma confronts the two scammers: an older gentleman named Harvey (Malcolm McDowell) and his grandson Michael (Aidan Fiske). Even in her 90s, Squibb can portray a menacing potency as a grandma armed and ready to take down a minor phone scam operation.

The smooth editing, coupled with an action flick-reminiscent score by composer Nick Chuba renders Thelma a crowd-pleasing indie comedy. It highlights compassion for the elderly in a way that is rarely featured while still providing enough stakes and laughs to keep the whole family engaged for 98 minutes.

It is safe to say that Thelma is one of the best comedies of the year, and with a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes, many seem to agree. So do not be surprised by my initiation of a grassroots Squibb Lead Actress Oscar campaign in the near future. Once you’ve seen Thelma, you’ll understand why she deserves all the love in the world.

As of July 11, Thelma is playing in theaters. It is expected to be released on VOD and digital on July 19.



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