“We’re not what we were.” “There is no good death.” “You want to see what’s going to happen to the ones you love.” Writer/director Josh Margolin squeezes surprisingly funny freshness from the musty themes of aging, death, and lost autonomy in his poignantly written “Thelma,” a seriocomic “Mission Impossible” remix that casts June Squibb as the titular action hero in a slow-moving but still quietly epic revenge flick about elder fraud.
The debut filmmaker’s tribute to his extraordinary grandmother (the story supposedly recounts an actual experience of hers and features a clip of the real Thelma during the credits) almost sounds like the premise of a raunchy Melissa McCarthy romp or gender-swapped “Bad Grandpa” riff. When scam artists mess with the wrong 93-year-old woman — successfully convincing Thelma to mail them $10,000 bail for her grandson Daniel (a pitch-perfect Fred Hechinger), who isn’t in jail at all — she decides to find the criminals at the delivery address and get her money back. She has no special skills. She has no real plan. And she’s got to ditch that Life Alert.
Tasked with getting across the treacherous Los Angeles cityscape via motorized scooter, it’s easy to imagine Thelma encountering any number of outrageous local threats in a comedy-borne script out of a major movie studio. Think high-speed traffic. Rabid coyotes. Drug dealers or social media influencers, maybe. But Margolin is a more grounded and sensitive storyteller than that, choosing instead to bring action genre flair to the very real physical and psychological obstacles facing people in their 90s. As delivered to Sundance 2024, this shaggy character study is oddly more akin to something like Rob Minkoff’s “Stuart Little,” positioning Thelma as an ambitious underdog traversing an imposing and perilous planet filled with characters she may have met… only now she’s not so sure. (A clear fan of the callback, Margolin turns Thelma’s “Do I know you?” forgetfulness and repeated jokes about the horrifically named Souplantation chain into ongoing causes for smiles.)
Household stairs seem like towering skyscrapers. Jagged concrete plays like boiling lava. Hearing aids turn into comms devices and prove just as confoundingly high-tech. “If I fall, I’m toast!” Thelma declares early in the film, standing in her living room with Squibb’s shaky determination framing every step as a potentially cataclysmic mistake. With old pal Ben (the late Richard Roundtree, tender and badass as ever) as Thelma’s reluctant partner in crime — and the sometimes hapless Daniel and his anxious parents Gail (Parker Posey) and Alan (Clark Gregg) as her mission’s de facto opposition — “Thelma” centers the starring widow’s struggle to balance her boundless appetite for life with the practical limitations of her age and health.
Margolin and Squibb deftly explore that surprisingly complicated emotional tension, bringing to life a woman not yet ready to debate every tactical move she makes with the cadre back at headquarters. Simultaneously fragile and fearsome, the 94-year-old actress (she’s had a birthday since filming!) remains as enchanting and spunky as she was in 2013’s “Nebraska.” Her chemistry with Roundtree is platonic but contagious, and while your take on the scene in question might vary, there is a read of this film that sees Squibb getting seriously flirty with Malcolm McDowell, whose role is a surprise.
Meanwhile, Hechinger, Posey, and Gregg play infantilizing-yet-well-intentioned with care, only sometimes feeling like more of a calculated network sitcom cast than a lovable indie film family. The 23-year-old “White Lotus” star is particularly impressive as a semi-autobiographical stand-in for his director, exploring a subplot about young adulthood and executive dysfunction with nimble skill and investment — even if the idea isn’t fleshed out all the way and his girlfriend (Coral Peña) is a nothing character.
Society’s broad dismissal of old people has sparked a number of TV shows and films in recent years, with career legends Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda seemingly cornering the market for older women with “Grace & Frankie,” “80 for Brady,” and last year’s “Moving On.” Although elements of “Thelma” may remind you of those actresses and projects, Squibb is softer and subtler — and Margolin is no imitator.
Having edited the film himself, the writer/director is sometimes overly indulgent in his pacing, producing an awkward cadence that makes Thelma’s story seem almost lost in thought at times. But that works better than you’d think, giving audiences an ambling journey to experience like a leisurely walk around your favorite grandparent’s retirement home. There are bits that lag enough to border on boring, and some of the beats go down especially stale. (It’s worth noting here that this is, for whatever reason, yet another movie to waste Nicole Byer’s talent with a barely there bit part.) Still, “Thelma” is one of a kind: a charming first at-bat for Margolin that you should underestimate no more than you would its namesake.
“Thelma” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.