Film reviews and more since 2009

Thelma (2024) review

Dir. Josh Margolin

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★½

Hollywood has done such a fabulous job at alienating middle-aged and elderly moviegoers that I’m no longer shocked when an older person tells me they haven’t seen nor been to a new movie in years. I think the last movie my 84-year-old grandma went and saw was Fat Albert in 2004, with me, which is probably a story fit for a movie in itself.

Alas, she might’ve smiled and even laughed along with Thelma, a low-key revelation that hits theaters just as bad boys are shooting everyone and everything in one theater and animated emotions are running around in another. Here’s a movie in which its star is a 93-year-old woman with mature jokes about aging and legacy that don’t consequently play their demographic for fools. It confronts these inevitabilities in a beautiful way while revolving around an all-too-real situation for millions.

Stemming from writer/director Josh Margolin’s relationship with his grandmother, Thelma (who is alive and spry at 103-years-old), the film revolves around the titular grandmother (June Squibb in her first starring role after 70+ years in the acting business). She’s a widower at 93, living alone, but never for too long, as her well-meaning but slightly dopey adult grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger), drops by often to help her navigate the internet and her email. Daniel isn’t good at much else, with no job and an ostensibly permanent residence at his parents’ (Parker Posey and Clark Gregg) home. He funnels his energy into the one thing at which he does exceed: making his nonagenarian grandmother smile.

This explains why, one day, Thelma gets thrown into a panic when she receives a random phone-call from a young man claiming to be her grandson. The voice on the other end doesn’t sound quite like Daniel’s, but he says he’s been in a car accident and tells grandma that a lawyer will be contacting her. When the “lawyer” (voiced by Malcolm McDowell) phones, he instructs grandma to send $10,000 in cash to a P.O. Box in Van Nuys. It’s a scam that’s rising in popularity, particularly with AI, and you can see why older people would fall for it, no questions asked.

After the family is thrown into a brief panic, Thelma’s daughter, son-in-law, and even Daniel, proceed to move on with their lives (maybe the most unbelievable part of Thelma, if you truly think about it). Not Thelma. She’s disgusted that the police are practically incapable of tracking down the culprits. With some inspiration from Tom Cruise, she decides to try and recover the money herself, enlisting the help of her late husband’s friend, Ben (the late, great Richard Roundtree), who reluctantly decides to loan her his electric wheelchair to get to Van Nuys.

The stakes for Thelma are debatably greater than the loss of $10,000. Judging by her home and her greater offense taken to the gall of the crime, she has more money than she knows what to do with, especially at her age. If she doesn’t succeed in at least making a strong effort at getting her money back, without falling or winding up in more trouble, there goes her independence. The family is already whispering about her being in a home. Daniel needs to get on with finding a career and can’t be caring for grandma around-the-clock.

This is a movie about a woman fighting to retain her way of life, as much as she misses the company of her husband. In a poignant scene with Ben, she remarks about how she lived with her parents until she was 23. Then she married Ted, and lived with him for the next 60. This is the first time she’s been alone her entire life. It’s not all sad, however. She tried and really liked sushi recently.

After decades as a Broadway performer, and a film acting career that began when she was 61 (shoutout to Woody Allen), June Squibb finally lands a starring role in a delightful, multidimensional picture that’s worthy of her talents. Seamless is the way Thelma weaves gentle (but sometimes uproariously funny) comedy and light-hearted parody of action movies into a thoughtful drama. Squibb excels at deadpan delivery, and knows exactly what buttons to press (pun intended) during a climactic sequence involving her on the phone with her grandson trying to figure out how to use a computer. That one goes out to those like me, who have had to help their loved-ones navigate the internet while busy at work themselves.

One of Squibb’s best scenes comes shortly after she’s been scammed. Distraught and frazzled at the end of the evening, she sits at the table with a picture of her late husband. All alone, just her and the picture. “I made a mistake, Teddy,” she tells the photo, before softly sobbing. It’s a scene I wish Margolin would’ve had more confidence in; to linger on the shot of the sight of a person who has lost their spouse that nobody sees.

Make no mistake in knowing that Thelma has a great deal of deftly handled comedy throughout. Squibb and Roundtree, in his final film role, have charming, platonic chemistry, and even Hechinger’s Daniel is gifted a nonintrusive subplot that, I feel, is essential to the film’s well-roundedness. Nicole Byer has a scene-stealing cameo in a meeting with Daniel and his parents. The rousing climax is then followed by a superb closing sequence that, as we see in a mid-credits scene, was directly lifted from a moment shared between Margolin and his own grandmother. If that was the extent of it, it would be cute. To take note of what the interaction, both the real-life one and the reenactment, is about, gives the film a larger purpose.

Part of that purpose is a reminder to call your grandparents, if you’re so lucky to still have them.

NOTE: Thelma will be playing exclusively in theaters starting June 20th, 2024.

NOTE II: Take a listen to my interview with Malcolm McDowell below. In addition to his work on the CBC show Son of a Critch and Stanley Kubrick, McDowell also mentions working with June Squibb on Thelma:

Starring: June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, Malcolm McDowell, and Nicole Byer. Directed by: Josh Margolin.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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