Review: ‘Thelma’ (2024), starring June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Clark Gregg, Parker Posey and Malcolm McDowell

July 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger in “Thelma” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Thelma” (2024)

Directed by Josh Margolin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy film “Thelma” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 93-year-old grandmother attempts to track down the con artists who scammed her out of $10,000.  

Culture Audience: “Thelma” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in comedies that make pointed observations about aging and how elderly people are often perceived.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in “Thelma” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The vigilante comedy “Thelma” achieves a rare balance of being hilarious, harrowing and heartwarming, even with some plot holes. June Squibb is a delight in this unique movie about a 93-year-old grandmother seeking revenge on con artists who scammed her. It’s the type of comedy that also has a lot to say (without being preachy) about how elderly people are often treated by society.

“Thelma,” which is the feature-film debut of writer/director Josh Margolin, had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that 93-year-old widow Thelma Post (played by Squibb) is very resourceful in her quest, despite being disabled, ignorant about most computer technology, and not having a driver’s license or a car. All of these factors affect her vigilante mission after she is scammed out of $10,000. Although the movie is fiction, a mid-credits scene shows how Margolin’s real-life grandmother Thelma influenced the movie.

“Thelma” (which takes place in the Los Angeles area) begins by showing Thelma getting help from her 24-year-old grandson Daniel Markowitz (played by Fred Hechinger), who is patiently showing her how to find a certain message in her email. Thelma is looking for an emailed recording of her deceased husband Ted singing “One Enchanted Evening.” Thelma, who lives by herself, has been a widow for almost two years.

Daniel, who is Thelma’s only grandchild, has a close relationship with Thelma and adores her immensely. Daniel’s neurotic mother Gail (played by Parker Posey) is Thelma’s daughter. Gail and her uptight husband Alan (played by Clark Gregg), who is Daniel’s father, are both busy working professionals. Daniel is unemployed, so he’s been asked to look after Thelma as much as he can. Daniel asks Thelma to wear a wrist band for emergency alerts. She reluctantly agrees to wear it.

It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that Daniel has a lot of insecurities because he feels like he is a disappointment to his parents. Not only is he unemployed, but he also hasn’t figured out what to do with his life. His aimlessness is one of the reasons why he thinks his estranged girlfriend Allie (played by Coral Peña) has asked that they take a break from each other. Daniel has this to say to Thelma about his separation from Allie: “We’re in different places. She thinks I’m ‘stuck.'”

One day, Thelma is at home by herself when she gets a frantic phone call from a young man who identifies himself as her grandson because he calls her “Grandma.” The voice on the phone sounds a lot like Daniel. The person the phone tells her that he’s in jail because he got into a car accident where his car hit a pregnant woman.

Another man then gets on the phone and identifies himself as the defense attorney for the grandson. This so-called attorney says it’s urgent that his client get bailed out as soon as possible, but he needs $10,000 in cash immediately for that to happen. He instructs Thelma to send the cash through the mail to his office address.

It’s a scam, of course, but Thelma doesn’t know it yet. She doesn’t hesitate to follow the instructions. And so, Thelma withdraws $10,000 from her bank account and mails the cash to the name and address she was given. She put the cash in a stamped envelope and just dropped the envelope in a mailbox at a post office, without getting a tracking number for the envelope. She later finds out it’s a fake name, and the address is a place that provides a street address for private mail boxes.

When Thelma finds out that Daniel really isn’t in jail and that she was scammed, she’s deeply embarrassed. Daniel, Gail and Alan tell her that the most important thing is that Thelma wasn’t physically hurt. They report the theft to police. But unfortunately, Thelma can’t remember the name and address where she mailed the money in an envelope that can’t be tracked.

The police officer taking the report tells Thelma and her family that it’s unlikely they can catch the culprits and get the money back since they don’t have any helpful information to track down the con artists. Daniel feels guilty because he wasn’t there with Thelma to prevent this scam from happening.

Meanwhile, Gail and Alan start to revisit the idea that Thelma is better off in a senior living facility. It’s a sore subject with Thelma, who thinks she’s perfectly capable of living by herself. Thelma’s embarrassment about being scammed turns to anger. And she decides she’s gong to track down the con artists, whether her family likes it or not.

Thelma knows her family wouldn’t approve of her vigilante plan, so she doesn’t tell them what she wants to do. She asks Daniel for a car ride to the Belwood Village Senior Living Facility, where she visits her longtime friend Ben Halpern (played by Richard Roundtree), who’s been a widower for the past five years. Thelma tells Ben about her plan and asks to borrow his scooter, but he says no.

The rest of “Thelma” is a madcap and sometimes poignant roller coaster ride of a story as Thelma (with a lot of help from Ben) plays detective and goes on the hunt for the scammers. Thelma’s anxious family members report her missing from the Belwood Village Senior Living Facility. It’s in this part of the movie that it’s revealed Thelma has several health issues: She’s a breast cancer survivor, had a hip replacement, and she wears hearing aids. She also has arrhythmia, a brain tumor, sepsis, edema and transient global amnesia.

There are some amusing scenes with Belwood Village employees Rochelle (played by Nicole Byer) and Colin (played by Quinn Beswick), who go back and forth with Thelma’s family over whether or not Thelma’s disappearance need to be reported to police, since it’s not uncommon for elderly people to wander off at this facility. There’s a Belwood Village resident named Starey Gary (played by David Giuliani), who got this nickname because he’s non-verbal and just stares. Starey Gary’s disabilities are not mocked in a cruel way, but his spaced-out persona is used for some of the comedic moments.

“Thelma” makes physical aging and elderly disabilities the focus of lot of jokes in ways that are not intended as insult but to make viewers are that senior citizens should not be underestimated because they might have physical characteristics that some people might perceive as liabilities. Thelma is a feisty free spirit who doesn’t let her disabilities hold her back from what she wants to do.

Thelma’s relationship with Daniel and her relationship with Ben are the heart and soul of the movie. Hechinger’s performance is convincing as a scruffily adorable Daniel, while Roundtree’s appealing performance as practical Ben provides some down-to-earth balance to Thelma’s impulsive tendencies. (“Thelma” is the last movie from Roundtree, who died in 2023 at the age of 81.) An “in memoriam” tribute caption for Roundtree is in the film’s end credits. Malcolm McDowell plays a character named Harvey, who shows up in the last third of the film.

“Thelma” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments because the casting and comedic timing for this movie are pretty much close to perfect. However, viewers have to suspend a lot of disbelief in a climactic part of the film which has some unrealistic elements with a few contradictions and unanswered questions. Overall, the movie’s heartfelt moments are effective without being sappy. “Thelma” stands out not just because it’s rare to see someone in their 90s headline a movie but also because it’s a genuinely funny movie that defies all the usual stigmas that people usually have about getting old.

Magnolia Pictures released “Thelma” in U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on July 19, 2024.

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