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Sundance movie review: Endearing ‘Thelma’ offers senior action heroine

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb star in "Thelma." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Richard Roundtree and June Squibb star in "Thelma." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Leading roles for elderly actors are rare enough. Thelma, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, elevates them to action heroes.

Thelma Post (June Squibb) spends time with her grandson, Danny (Fred Hechinger), as he helps her with her computer and medical alert bracelet. One day, she gets a call from Danny claiming to be in jail and needing to be bailed out.

Thelma follows instructions to mail cash before her daughter, Gail (Parker Posey) and son-in-law, Alan (Clark Gregg) confirm Danny is OK and the call was an imposter. Thelma's family is just glad no one was hurt,, but Thelma is determined to get her money back.

Thelma's journey evokes action movies with the limitations of senior citizens. Thelma enlists Ben (Richard Roundtree) to use his scooter to drive to the post office box to which she sent the money, leading to a slow-moving scooter chase.

Ben and Thelma use their hearing aids as surveillance equipment, and she tosses her medical bracelet so she can't be tracked, just like many rogue heroes ditch their tracking devices.

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger star in "Thelma." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
June Squibb and Fred Hechinger star in "Thelma." Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Just walking up a flight of steps could cause a fall that ends the movie prematurely, and Thelma comes close to slipping.

Writer-director Josh Margolin still constructs those scenes like a blockbuster with sweeping camera moves and intense music. Margolin also edited the film and turned simple actions into suspenseful set pieces.

Josh Margolin wrote and directed "Thelma." Photo courtesy of Molly Berman
Josh Margolin wrote and directed "Thelma." Photo courtesy of Molly Berman

The key to making this work is the intention. Other movies might use the genre to mock the elderly characters, but Margolin is celebrating them.

Margolin clearly believes people like Thelma and Ben still have value, even though younger people may doubt them. Danny is patient and loving with his grandmother, and even agrees to take any small memento she wants to give him, but his parents can be dismissive of her.

Clark Gregg also stars in "Thelma." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Clark Gregg also stars in "Thelma." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

The film periodically cuts back to the middle-aged contingent of the family in pursuit of Thelma. Gail and Alan are in such a panic they are no more adept at locating a missing person than Thelma is at locating the scam artists, but they're equally amusing.

It's interesting that recently AI has been used to impersonate people in phone scams. Thelma only posits another young man sounded close enough to fool a 93-year-old woman with hearing issues, but such scams have grown even more insidious in only the time it took to finish and release Thelma.

Parker Posey also stars in "Thelma." File Photo by David Silpa/UPI
Parker Posey also stars in "Thelma." File Photo by David Silpa/UPI

Like the recent The Beekeeper, the issue of phone scams is a relevant one on which to base a thriller. Squibb is not quite as brutal as Jason Statham, but it is just as satisfying to see her as Thelma taking matters into her own hands.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.