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Thelma Thrills At a Senior Speed

(L-R) Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in Thelma. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

There’s a cute moment early on in Thelma when our titular senior citizen protagonist played by the incomparable Nebraska Oscar nominee June Squibb is agape watching Tom Cruise sprint across London rooftops in 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout on her CRT TV-VCR combo nestled around bookshelves and knick-knacks. She asks her wingman grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger of News of the World) if that’s a stuntman barreling across the screen, to which he reveals it’s the actual actor. The twinkle of amazement in Thelma’s eyes only gets brighter followed by a little flutter of whether she could ever get around like that. 

Well, eat your f’n heart out, Tom Cruise! In the first lead performance of her seven-decade career, June Squibb proves she can get around just fine at the venerable age of 93! Sure, the speeds of the pursuits are exponentially slower and the heights of the obstacles are far closer to the ground, but, make no mistake, there are thrills to be had and laughs to be enjoyed with Thelma. With all due respect to Ryan Gosling, Will Smith, Anya Taylor-Joy, Martin Lawrence, and Glen Powell, June just leapfrogged them all to be the must-see action hero of the 2024 summer blockbuster season.

This feature-length directorial debut of Deep Murder writer Josh Margolin stars Squibb as Thelma Post, an elderly woman living on her own in Encino, California. She’s been a widow for two years after her husband Teddy passed away, but finds enjoyment in her embroidery, Instagram, TV shows, and frequent visits from Danny to show her how to use the computer. Thelma is adorned– or should we say “enhanced” since we’re dabbling in action movie territory– with handy Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids and a falling alert bracelet which she abhors to wear.

A young man leans forward to show an elderly woman how to use a computer in Thelma.
(L-R) June Squibb and Fred Hechinger in Thelma. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

All is well and good until an unknown caller (later revealed to be A Clockwork Orange’s Malcolm McDowell) rings up Thelma’s phone one morning pretending to be Danny and an attorney. They report that he’s gotten into a car accident that injured a pregnant woman, which brought charges that now have him in jail. The caller requests Thelma’s urgent help of $10,000 cash to sent by mail. The worried woman gathers up the money and gets a cab to the post office before anyone answers her frantic phone calls.

This scam in Thelma mirrors many such elder fraud cases targeting senior citizens, including over 101,000 victims in the U.S. over the age of 60 last year alone. This particular one befell Josh Margolin’s own 103-year-old grandmother, creating the inspiration for his script. The real Thelma, who appears in the credits and whose actual residence was used for Squibb’s character in the film– didn’t fall for it, but the predicament made for an excellent inciting event for suspense and comedy to examine the repercussions for someone who did.

Ah, what kind of person indeed! Beyond the visage of a sweet old lady who calls other people “dolls” is still an individual of gumption capable of revenge. Irked and inspired, Thelma becomes heartset to seek out her perpetrators and confront them. She ditches her tracking watch and Danny’s supervision and enlists her old friend Ben (the late Shaft star himself Richard Roundtree, in his final role) for help. The two non-youngsters recognize their “diminished” physical limits and liabilities with touches of gallows humor and matching reflection, but their mettle and will are never in question. 

A woman in the passenger seat points during an argument in a moving car.
(L-R) Parker Posey, Fred Hechinger, and Clark Gregg in Thelma. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Thelma and Ben escape his nursing home with his souped-up red electric scooter, an P.O. box address in Van Nuys, and that aforementioned senior state of mind. Their loosey-goosey framework of a plan starts with getting a gun from another widowed old buddy Mona (Bunny Levine of You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). The duo’s exodus to the open streets sets off the second chase of the movie, which activates Danny’s overbearing parents– the neurotic worry-wart Gail (indie darling Parker Posey) and the risk-adverse square Alan (Marvel Cinematic Universe mainstay Clark Gregg). They, along with Hechinger, set up their share of Thelma’s comedic side and missing person hijinks.

Circling back to those aforementioned speeds and heights, clever filmmaking tricks can do wonders with subjects and scenes which cannot–and are not trying to—move at warp speed. Josh Margolin, wearing his editing hat, has created dexterous tone and pace in Thelma to look and feel as kinetic and muscular as it wants to be. Shōgun composer Nick Chuba unfurls an superb, peppy score of slapped bongos and trilling flutes which add an ideal and colorful punch. More often that not, it’s a nonagenarian and an octagenarian with titanium hips amazingly doing most of their own stunts for coordinator Ryan Sturz (Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers).

Two people are riding a scooter on a sidewalk in Thelma.
(L-R) Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in Thelma. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Through it all, there’s June Squibb and Richard Roundtree getting their best chances to show a different tempo of hero mode. Both performers deserved this kind of spotlight (what a perfect sendoff for Richard, too) and, unlike other high-profile senior-centered rom-coms and friendship movies of the past decade that veer to outlandish feats for the sake of spectacle, Margolin’s film keeps the adventurous side pertinent and attainable without losing a wily edge. The only heartrate monitors going off here in Thelma are when your own tickers soften for Squibb and Roundtree’s bottomless caring and charm.

As oxymoronic as this reads, Thelma is a moseying thriller that never falls asleep at the wheel or on its cushy davenport. While trying to stand on a springy bed or step gingerly over a fallen lamp might not seem hard to most, try it when your 90. Either way, those acts are rightly shot and assembled with riveting intensity for maximum entertainment. The best part is we’re in on the genre-emulating jokes at hand, allowing us to laugh merrily with the silliest of circumstances.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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