Review: Thelma Is a Tour de Force for a Hardworking Actor Too Long Taken for Granted

Can I adopt June Squibb as my grandmother? I suspect that will be the question crossing the minds of anyone without a living grandparent after coming out of Thelma, Josh Margolin’s downright adorable, funny, exciting and poignant feature debut about a nonagenarian who takes matters in her own hands after falling for a scam.

After 101 film credits (including a couple that have yet to be released), it is a real treat to see Squibb, a hardworking, no-nonsense character actor from Vandalia, Illinois, in a lead role. She plays the recently widowed Thelma, an adoring grandmother who is beginning to learn to live on her own. Her technical skills are pretty basic: even though she has no issues operating her smartphone and the many bluetooth devices that make it possible to operate her hearing aid, Thelma needs the help of her equally doting grandson Daniel (Fred Hechinger) to open emails and navigate the web (the opening scene with Daniel helping her access a video of her late husband reminded me of the many times my late sister helped my parents set up an entire server and even operate their VHS and DVD machines). She is also taken by the derring-do of one Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation after watching it on video with Daniel. 

It is precisely her limited technical knowledge that makes Thelma a perfect target for scam artists. She receives a call from someone claiming to be Daniel who tells her he’s in an accident and is now in police custody and to wait for a call from a lawyer. As she talks to the impersonator, the so-called lawyer’s call comes in and (in the voice of Malcolm McDowell; would you trust a caller whose voice sounded like McDowell’s?) asks her to mail $10,000 to an address. She gathers the money she’s kept hidden all over her house and heads to the post office. On the way, Thelma calls Daniel’s mother (Parker Posey) and she in turn calls her husband (Clark Gregg). When all is said and done, the money is in the mail, Daniel was never in a car accident and the police say there’s nothing they can do about it.

Tell that to Thelma. Inspired by the headline of a Tom Cruise profile in the paper, she decides to go after her money. If Tom Cruise can grab the bull by the horn and do all his own stunts, well, darn it, so can she grab that very same bull and get her money back. So, after tracking down the address and needing some sort of vehicular device that can get her there, Thelma visits her old friend Ben (Richard Roundtree) at his retirement residence. She steals his super duper mobility scooter. Ben briefly chases her down the halls of the home in a separate scooter to then join Thelma in her quest for justice and recovery. And no, their adventure won’t end like that film that other Thelma and her pal Louise did. However, Thelma and Louise didn’t have concerned relatives that go after them or even place a Silver Alert.

More than subverting the tropes of the action film, Margolin—in basing his film on his own grandmother’s close encounter with a scammer—has ingeniously adapted those tropes to these characters’ limited abilities and surroundings to tell a story about agency and independence once we reach our third act. While Nick Chuba’s flute, bongo and bass-driven score heightens those tropes with its evocation of the type of action movies that made Roundtree and then Stallone, Schwarzenegger and even Cruise into stars, one laughs as loud as possible at the sight of Thelma and Ben riding away in that scooter, an almost sad undercurrent flows with the shenanigans.

Played at first as humor, Thelma’s continuous run-ins with people she believes she recognizes from her past but happen to be somebody else point at her shrinking world, one where old acquaintances are no longer with us. And Ben and Thelma’s visit to a friend with clear signs of dementia and who lives on her own drives home, without belaboring it, how many of our elderly loved ones are sometimes tossed aside, by even family members. It’s a heartbreaking sequence amidst all the fun, a beautiful example of how Margolin is able to balance more than one tone without being maudlin or cartoonish. 

But, above all, there’s the dynamic duo of Squibb and Roundtree. In what turned out to be his final film role before he died of pancreatic cancer last year, Roundtree delivers a performance full of dignity. As Ben, he acknowledges the limitations of age, of the need for friendship and companionship at that age and of feeling no shame in seeking help from others. He is, above all, a gentleman of the old school, one that will give a helping hand to others even after having a ferocious argument with that person. You almost feel Roundtree acknowledge, in his dialogue, his own limitations and that he is looking back to a life well lived.

Squibb’s Thelma is determined and stubborn, even when there are signs that not everything in her is working at full capacity. There is love and gusto in her performance…although I do wonder if it is fair to call it a performance. Thelma feels like such a lived-in character that you can’t help but think that Squibb is as determined, as tenacious, as loving and lovable and caring as her character. It’s an unforgettable performance from an actor we have taken for granted for too long. May she still continue bringing us much joy.

Again I ask…may I adopt her as my grandmother?

Thelma is now playing in theaters.

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Alejandro Riera