“Thelma,” which premiered at Sundance on Thursday, is many things: on the surface it’s a film heavily inspired by heist movies like “Ocean’s 11” and detective stories like “Harper.” But on the other it’s a deeply loving ode to our grandparents, the fears we hold for our loved ones and the struggles the elderly have to assert themselves despite social stigmas. But, let’s be real, it’s all about watching June Squibb and Richard Roundtree ride a scooter down the streets of Los Angeles in the name of justice.
Inspired by true events, “Thelma” follows the titled character (Squibb), who spends her days living on her own and trying to learn about the computer from her 24-year-old layabout grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger). It’s that grandson whom Thelma believes has called her in a panic, claiming he’s been in an accident and needs $10,000 to get out of jail. Thelma dutifully sends the money only to realize she’s been scammed. In a bid to rectify the situation, Thelma embarks on a journey with her friend Ben (Roundtree) to take back what’s hers.
Squibb, still just as spry and exhibiting excellent comedic timing at 93 years young, is placed in the same position as actors like Paul Newman and Humphrey Bogart, walking the streets of Los Angeles trying to get answers. Margolin’s filmic influences are funny as can be, having the stage of an old folks home — wherein someone is doing an interpretive dance — evoke the vibe of a smoky burlesque house or dive bar. Squibb’s dialogue is snarky and just as quick-witted as Elliott Gould in “The Long Goodbye” and her interplay with Roundtree, particularly once they set off on a scooter to track down the baddies, evokes George Clooney’s Danny Ocean and Brad Pitt’s Rusty.
Squibb is having such fun in the role, particularly in the moments where she has to balance the detective plotline with just being an elderly woman trying to figure out how to navigate the world. A sharply edited sequence of her trying to get a set of wheels — common in heist thrillers — gets an added sheen of humor as all her phone calls to friends end up with her discovering they’ve died. Squibb’s facial expressions and reactions are pitch perfect.
Her wide-eyed optimism and lack of street smarts is tempered by that of Richard Roundtree, in his final film role. Where Thelma spends her days in quiet solitude, Ben is trying to stay active and relevant by taking classes at his retirement community and starring as Daddy Warbucks in a geriatric version of “Annie.” He’s also harboring a lot of guilt over the death of his wife. Every scene he’s in is both warm yet melancholy. Both actors play off each other so well, enhancing the fact that both need each other to make it through their golden years.
Hechinger, Parkey Posey and Clark Gregg are also solid as Thelma’s grandson, daughter and son-in-law, respectively. All three are left to play flightier characters, each far too overly consumed with Thelma getting hurt. Their overly exaggerated emotions make sense though and are Margolin’s central point: people infantilize the elderly while simultaneously looking on them as a burden.
Thelma worries that if she can’t live on her own, she’ll be irrelevant, yet Ben tries to stay active to stave off that same feeling. Even the man who steals Thelma’s money (played by Malcolm McDowall), justifies his actions due to the fact that “nobody cares about old things.” It’s a completely relevant topic that doesn’t get discussed enough and, thankfully, the script never comes off as a preachy on the subject.
But, honestly, these complex topics are all well and good but “Thelma” is just a movie that ends up putting a smile on your face. Whether it’s watching Thelma and Ben get that quintessential explosion in the background shot or a sequence of watching Thelma navigate a computer — played with all the intensity of watching Tom Cruise in the “Mission: Impossible” movies — this is just a fun, sweet movie that always knows what to do to make the audience enjoy themselves and the characters.
“Thelma” is a totally pure delight that gives June Squibb a much-deserved leading role. Her and Roundtree are fabulously paired and Margolin’s script is breezy and sharp in equal measure. You’ll want to see this with your best friend, your parents, and, yes, your grandma.
“Thelma” is a sales title at Sundance.
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