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David Bolen/Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
Thelma (2024)

Writer-director Josh Margolin has taken direct inspiration from the “Mission: Impossible” movies (Tom Cruise is thanked in the credits) to make an action movie starring an elderly woman which does not once patronize her. It takes the dual challenges of being old and caring for the elderly and turns them into riotous action sequences filmed by David Bolen with all the flash of a thriller, and with Simon Astall’s music hitting the same dramatic notes. Climbing two flights of stairs is no small achievement when your body is winding down, so it’s a completely fair comparison, and kind of surprising no one has done this before. This is also the first starring role of June Squibb’s film career, and considering her acting career has lasted over 70 years, better late than never – but oh, what a loss, because she’s wonderful. Funny, devious, charming and with a determination to assert herself that never turns to bitterness, Ms. Squibb’s Thelma is an absolute delight. From the Sundance Film Festival onwards, this will redefine crowd-pleaser.

Despite being a 93 year old widow, Thelma is doing just fine. She lives alone in her house in Los Angeles, does needlepoint, keeps up with her exercises. Her family, daughter, Gail (Parker Posey), son-in-law, Alan (Clark Gregg), and grandson, Danny (Fred Hechinger), are nearby, by which is meant they are an anxious, hovering personal presence in addition to constantly monitoring Thelma online. She’s keeping up with the modern world, sending emails to her friends and scrolling on Instagram on her phone despite none of this being intuitive to her. Danny is spending a lot of time with Thelma, as he’s currently somewhat adrift: not working, broken up with his girlfriend and crumbling under the pressure from his parents to find a direction for his life. That means when Thelma gets a demanding phone call saying Danny has been arrested and needs $10,000 bail money sent to a random address across town, Thelma doesn’t hesitate to mail off a check. When Thelma, Gail and Alan stop freaking out and discover Danny wasn’t picking up because he was asleep, they realize Thelma was scammed. Of course, it could have been a lot worse, but Thelma is not going to take this lying down.

No adventure is complete without the friends you make along the way; and the Louise in this story is Ben (Richard Roundtree in his final role), an old acquaintance of Thelma’s who has something she needs to go see the scammer without her family knowing: a mobility scooter. Ben lives in a nursing home, which provides companionship and physical assistance that Thelma sniffs at. When Ben points out that he’s not too proud to ask for help picking up his socks now that his wife is dead, Thelma gently reminds him that in her marriage she was the one who did the sock picking-up. She also gleefully steals Ben’s scooter – her journey through the nursing home hallways is filmed like a car chase – though she doesn’t get far before he insists on joining her for her own protection. And as they cross Los Angeles toward the address where Thelma sent her check, the escalating hysteria of Gail, Alan and Danny provides a very relatable motivation for Thelma’s firm insistence she can manage on her own.

The movie’s final act is a confrontation with an equally elderly villain, played by Malcolm McDowell to ensure we take him seriously. The threat is serious indeed, but it’s done with such joie-de-vivre that the action trope of someone guiding the hero via an earpiece here has Danny talking Thelma through how to delete pop-up ads. The fantastically charming tone is Mr. Margolin’s main achievement, but he also has a remarkable ear for dialogue and the ways in which families use inside jokes. It also cannot be said enough, at no point are any of the elderly characters patronized for being old, even when it’s obvious they are not what they once were. This kindness begins with Thelma’s habit of greeting random, equally elderly passers-by who she thinks she recognizes, and is most firmly offered to an old friend of Thelma and Ben’s, a woman named Mona (Bunny Levine) who is clearly living on her living room recliner and struggling to care for herself. Ben is horrified at the state of Mona’s home, but Thelma sets her mouth: Mona is managing; and no one has the right to tell her what to do. This insistence of female independence – and with such style – means that “Thelma” is a gift in more ways than one.

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