Writer and director Josh Margolin drew inspiration from his own grandmother, who gives his feature-length debut its title. Margolin’s grandmother, Thelma, received a phone call similar to the one that unsettles the movie Thelma. Played with heartwarming self-determination by veteran character actor June Squibb, Thelma Post is scammed out of $10,000 after receiving a call in which the grifter says that her beloved grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger) is in jail after supposedly causing a catastrophic accident. Thelma panics and sends the money in cash form to the instructed PO box.
Thelma’s daughter, Gail (Parker Posey as her usual neurotic—but no less terrific self), and her husband, Alan (Clark Gregg, also terrific) dismiss the incident since Thelma’s unharmed and the police can’t do anything about it. But Thelma refuses to be infantilized by them or society, determined to hunt down the criminals responsible and recoup her money.
Mirroring Thelma’s state is her grandson, Daniel, whose abilities and potential are equally underestimated. Daniel spends meaningful time with his widowed grandmother and their scenes are infused with warmth and charm right from the outset. It’s no wonder that it is to Daniel that Thelma turns to during a pivotal moment in the action-adventure, allowing him to jump in on the action with his own part to play.
But make no mistake, Thelma is the true action star, taking her inspiration from the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible movies. It is her great enduring spirit that moves the action along, complimented by nods to Lalo Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme that permeates throughout, thanks to composer Nick Chuba.
The parallels between Thelma and Cruise’s Ethan Hunt are hilarious. Thelma doesn’t fly off a cliff on a motorbike like Cruise in MI: Dead Reckoning, but she does swipe her late husband’s friend’s scooter after visiting him in his nursing home. That friend, Ben, is played by none other than Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, and when he decides to take up her cause and join the adventure, the mission throughout expansive LA becomes a fun, elderly version of MI that is full of charm and humor.
The action-adventure is also full of authentic moments that give the movie an air of plausibility. When Thelma and Ben visit an old friend (Bunny Levine), it’s clear that for some, living alone can be a danger. Thelma and Ben are there to steal their friend’s gun, of course, which is quite funny, but it also serves as a reminder that independent living isn’t appropriate for everyone. Even Ben says to Thelma at one point, “We’re not what we were,” but like so many action heroes, the two spiritedly endure in their determination anyway.
Connecting their phones to their hearing aids is their clever version of the spy game tool of providing intel through hidden earpieces. They eventually track down the criminals, a shady character played by Malcolm McDowell and his own grandson (Aidan Fiske). It’s a testament to Thelma’s courageous and innovative improvisation that allows her to get the upper hand, despite the odds.
There is so much to love about Thelma. First off, the engaging ensemble of Thelma, Ben, and Daniel. There is plenty of humor provided by not only Posey and Gregg as overbearing personalities—who complement the material—but also two workers at Ben’s assisted facility, portrayed by Nicole Byer and Quinn Beswick.
I watched the film live at Sundance, at the Eccles Theater, the biggest venue for films at the festival, and I had to sit in the balcony section since the place was so packed. All the comedy landed, with most laughing out loud, proving what a pleasurable experience it is to take in a movie with such an enthusiastic audience.
Even though the film is really a comedy, it ends on such a genuinely touching note with a profound conversation between Thelma and Daniel while they converse in the car. Even more poignant? The same scene is shown with the real Thelma, who is now 103 (after the credits). I was not the only one who teared up.
The film viewing was followed by a Q and A session with the film’s creator, Margolin, who explained that his grandmother couldn’t attend the premiere at Sundance because the trip would have been too taxing (the high altitude of Park City), but that she had seen the final screener and loved it. He also talked about the real-life incident that inspired him to pen the script. In Margolin’s case, his grandmother was able to get in touch with her family who assured her of his safety. It also prompted him to write a story on how he imagined his spirited grandma might react.
Many of the scenes were filmed in his grandmother's condo (she has since moved to assisted living). Other scenes were filmed at the Motion Picture Television Fund, which provides living space for seniors who have fallen on hard times.
Thelma was also Roundtree’s last film, who passed away last year. We got to watch his final last adventure, a lovely farewell.