June Squibb Stars in a Sweet Senior Action Movie – The Hollywood Reporter contentnexus4u

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Josh Margolin drew inspiration from an attempted scam in which a caller posing as him almost succeeded in conning money out of his grandmother, whose name provides the title of the writer-director’s entertaining feature debut, Thelma. Unlike the real-life situation, the 93-year-old character played with warmth, humor and formidable tenacity by the marvelous June Squibb falls for the ruse, getting bilked out of $10,000 before she even has time to think about it. But Thelma Post is not the type of woman to shrug off the unpleasant incident, no matter how much her family underestimates her.

That scenario generates a pleasurable low-key comedy with action and thriller elements, which plays out like a caper even if the senior defying expectations by chasing down criminals is on the side of justice. She just wants people to be nice and do what’s right. The film reflects on issues of aging and autonomy with a mostly light touch, its protagonist making a strong case for the enduring spirit of elderly folks too often infantilized by both society and their loved ones.

Thelma

The Bottom Line

Silver power.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Clark Gregg, Parker Posey, Malcolm McDowell, Nicole Byer, Quinn Beswick, Coral Peña, Aidan Fiske, Bunny Levine
Director-screenwriter: Josh Margolin

1 hour 37 minutes

One of the key assets of the appealing ensemble, alongside Squibb, is Fred Hechinger, who was so terrific on season one of The White Lotus. (Hey, Mike White, it’s not too late for a spinoff series about Quinn’s life with the Hawaiian canoe paddlers and his folks’ efforts to get him back home.) Hechinger plays Thelma’s adoring grandson Daniel, introduced patiently helping her wade through a thicket of emails in an opening scene that establishes the limits of her computer literacy.

Daniel is stuck, unemployed and directionless, his self-esteem in the gutter since his girlfriend (Coral Peña) put their relationship on pause: “I’m just not really sure what my selling points are right now.” He takes his unofficial role as his grandmother’s “guardian angel” seriously, however, deepening his feelings of failure when she falls victim to a phone scam and then goes missing while on his watch. That sends his fretful parents, Gail (Parker Posey) and Alan (Clark Gregg), into an anxious spiral, as concerned for their son’s mental health as they are for the safety of Gail’s mother.

But even though Thelma is wobbly on her feet and lives in fear of a fall, she’s far from helpless. One minute she’s doing needlepoint while watching TV, admiring the athletic form of Tom Cruise’s trademark sprint in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the next she’s zipping out of the assisted living facility that’s home to her late husband’s friend Ben (Richard Roundtree), attempting to abscond with his mobility scooter. Ben catches her just in time, and since he’s too much of a gentleman to let her face danger alone, he insists on accompanying her across sprawling Los Angeles to the post-box address where she mailed the money.

Much of the movie’s charm is in the buddy-comedy element of Thelma and Ben’s misadventures on the road. Thelma is stubbornly proud to remain independent; she misses her husband but at the same time is enjoying the experience of being alone for the first time in her life. Ben, by contrast, readily acknowledges that they are both old and diminished: “We’re not what we were.” He’s grateful for the security afforded him by the retirement home and the activities provided there to ward off loneliness.

Margolin’s writing gets a little self-consciously cute at times, but more often, it’s genuinely touching, fortified by the relaxed rapport between Squibb and Roundtree and the good-humored bickering between their characters. Thelma’s prickliness and the mischievous glint in her eyes are nicely offset by Ben’s kindness, particularly when she suffers a physical setback.

Their odyssey in search of Thelma’s money gains vitality from a punchy retro-flavored score by Nick Chuba, which nods subtly to Lalo Schifrin’s classic Mission: Impossible theme, and in what feels like an homage to Roundtree’s history in the original Shaft movies, has an air of ‘70s blaxploitation. Ben is a lovely send-off role for the veteran actor, who died last October. Malcolm McDowell also appears late in the action as a shady figure who nonetheless serves to point up a different aspect of the aging struggle.

Despite providing Thelma with a gun and her own version of spy gadgetry in a hearing-aid phone app, Margolin keeps the Ethan Hunt parallels more or less within the bounds of plausibility. Even a cheeky riff on the familiar trope of action heroes sauntering away from an explosion feels more grounded in character than genre. The film makes Thelma’s natural gumption her strongest weapon, allowing her to stay one step ahead of the panicked Gail and Alan, to face trouble with a cool head and to call on the assistance of Daniel only when necessary.

The mutual confidence boost exchanged between grandmother and grandson is nicely underplayed by Squibb and Eichinger, giving the modest movie real heart. Thelma is sweet and poignant, sentimental without getting sappy. Just the fact that it gives Squibb the first leading screen role of her seven-decade career makes it a satisfying watch.

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