At the beginning of Thelma––a loveable, low-stakes joyride from director Josh Margolin––the movie’s eponymous 93-year-old grandmother sits on the couch with her grandson Daniel and marvels at Tom Cruise. They’re watching a recent Mission: Impossible sequel on her tiny television and can’t fathom Cruise’s running and jumping daredevil-ism at his weathered age. Thelma may live alone, need hearing aids, play solitaire, have trouble typing out an email, and get flustered when pop-up ads surprise her online. But much like America’s most extreme action star, she knows she’s still got it, too. 

Thelma is played by June Squibb and it’s clear she’s having a ball leading her first movie. Since making a name for herself with an Oscar nomination in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, the nonagenarian has spent the last decade flexing her comedic chops in small roles and cameos, eating up goofy line deliveries as a reliable character actor. Thelma gives her a bigger platform to chew up the senior-citizen scenery and embody a very familiar kind of self-assured grandmother who still needs help with just about every modern convenience. It also pushes her out of the house and into some dangerous Los Angeles streets.

Inspired by his own relationship with his grandmother, Margolin relishes Squibb’s mannered speech and interactions with Daniel (Fred Hechinger), whose helicopter care mostly manifests in frequent phone calls and relaying computer instructions. She becomes an easy target, however, when a young man who sounds like Daniel calls her to explain he’s been in a major car accident. Soon after, he convinces her to send $10,000 in cash to a specific address and PO Box, an all-too-familiar scam that Thelma learns the local police have no way of preventing. It spooks her family, but there’s nothing for them to do. 

Thelma has other plans. She coordinates a visit to see Henry (a posthumous Richard Roundtree), her late husband’s best friend at a nearby nursing home, where the pair uses his electric scooter to sneak out and get her money back. The slow-maneuvered escape terrifies Daniel, already down from a recent breakup, who feels responsible for letting her out of his sight. Then he’s got to deal with his high-strung, overprotective parents (Parker Posey playing reliably overwhelmed, and Clark Gregg as her know-it-all husband), who camp out at the facility, start arguing with staff members, and then start a goose chase searching for her in their car.

There’s real consequences in a scenario like this––Thelma has just about every medical condition imaginable, along with brittle bones and a cavalier attitude, making her low-speed excursion to confront potentially menacing strangers a risky proposition. The White Lotus-style score from Nick Chuba adds some ironic, propulsive humor to the pair’s meandering detours (like a house visit to see an old friend), but outside an accidental gunshot, Margolin rarely puts his protagonist into too much danger. He’s more interested in the way old habits lead someone astray. Like when Thelma keeps stopping peers on the street to ask if they know each other, innocent questions that hilariously disrupt the time-sensitive nature of their quest. 

Margolin cuts back and forth between the family, losing a little momentum in the process. It’s more fun watching Squibb be adventurous, and Posey and Gregg only have one note to play: neurotic. But the pair make a feast of their limited opportunities to express a certain kind of anger and remorse over what has become a somewhat recurring situation. Daniel is more fleshed-out––though a thread that involves his ex-girlfriend gets a bit lost in the shuffle, Hechinger exudes a convincing vulnerability and endears himself to Thelma in a way his parents can’t. 

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between a cheap laugh (Thelma takes unintentional Instagram photos that help share her location) and Squibb’s unique sense of humor and diction (she wonders why “Zucker-borg” can’t crack down on Facebook scammers). At its core, though, the film presents a woman battling for relevance and autonomy in a world that has been made for hyper-vigilance. Multiple times, she snaps off Daniel’s life alert bracelet, a tracker that might as well be handcuffs. It’s Henry, the less-cynical side of this revenge-seeking duo, who provides another perspective––namely that it’s okay to ask for help. “We’re old and liabilities to the ones we love,” he tells her. Thelma’s final confrontation doesn’t have too many pyrotechnics, but the journey to recognizing and rebuffing that advice matches Squibb’s late-appreciated talents. She’s still got it.

Thelma premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

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