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‘Thelma’ (review)

Reading the press release for Thelma, I was intrigued.  The story sounded cute, and the cast included several Indie actors and character actors I enjoy.  I was optimistic that I was in for a fairly pleasant evening. I was completely unprepared for the well-crafted gem that Thelma is.

Thelma is the story of an independent, 93-year-old Jewish grandmother who is tele-scammed for $10,000 when she is led to believe her beloved grandson is in desperate need of bail money.

When Thelma (June Squibb, Nebraska)  and her family discover the scam, her family starts to think it’s time to consider putting Thelma in 24-hour senior care.

Thelma thinks it is time for revenge.

With the reluctant help of one of her only surviving friends, Ben (Richard Roundtree, Shaft), Thelma takes off on a desperate mission. They mobile scooter their way across Los Angeles.

While evading Thelma’s well-meaning but infantilizing family, Thelma and Ben seek to confront the tele-scammers and get Thelma’s money back.

Basing the title character of Thelma on his own grandmother, Writer/director Josh Margolin turns the action genre on its head. Margolin shared in a statement, “I wanted to explore her fight for what’s left of her autonomy just as I was beginning to consider mine. She has always been larger-than-life to me, and I felt compelled to dramatize her story with the trappings of a genre that captures her powerful spirit and celebrates her grit and tenacity – action.”

And that is exactly what he did.

Margolin’s choice to use cinematographer David Bolen was a brilliant move.  Bolen’s fluency in the visual language of action films helps drive home all the potential life threatening risks Thelma faces daily. It gives Thelma’s  journey across the city scope. It’s a vast, dangerous world out there, and nothing is making Thelma turn back.

June Squibb’s Thelma is charismatic.

She’s more than the feisty grandma that we want in our own lives.  She is a woman who discovers her independence from other people’s expectations later in life, and is fighting to hold onto her independence with both hands.

Her adventure to find the phone scammers gives a humors framing to the true to life challenges older people face; adapting to technology, working with a slowing (or failing body), being the last of your social circle left standing.

The humor is never Thelma’s expense.

She’s not a hapless victim that we cringe-laugh at.  The humor is in the kick butt way Thelma overcomes her obstacles.  Her confrontation with the scammer’s is one of the best Boss Lady moves in a film I have seen this year.  The cherry on top is knowing that nonagenarian June Squibb did all her own stunts.

While Thelma muscles her way through obstacles like a freight train, Richard Roundtree’s Ben, is the quiet person they always tell you to watch out for.  His gentle, unassuming exterior belies a rock steady strength and moral compass.  Ben is Thelma’s perfect foil.  Where Thelma is looking for independence, Ben is looking for connection.  Thelma is denying her need for help. Ben embraces his present, and finds the silver lining in his opportunities and because of that he is full of life.

Thelma and Ben’s “Odd Couple” energy makes the film. Everyone needs the yin to their yang.

The supporting cast is the icing on the cake.

Fred Hechinger is endearing as Thelma’s grandson, Daniel.  Thelma and Daniel’s relationship is sweet.  They each support the other as they both progress through the next stages of their lives.  As Thelma guides Daniel into adulting, Daniel helps Thelma navigate a modern world that is trying to leave her behind. Parker Posey and Clark Gregg  round out the family dynamic as Daniel’s picture perfect helicopter parents.

Malcom MacDowell’s cameo drives home the idea that not all senior citizens are sweet and harmless.

Thelma is funny and totally engrossing. Margolin and Co. seem to remember that you can pack a whole lotta laughs and story into a lean hour and a half.

No matter how old you are, you’ll come out of the film feeling rejuvenated and smiling.

  *  *  *  *  *
Written and Directed by Josh Margolin
Produced by Zoë Worth, Chris Kaye, Nicholas Weinstock,
Benjamin Simpson, Karl Spoerri, Viviana Vezzani
Starring June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree,
Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, Malcolm McDowell



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