June Squibb channels Tom Cruise in the rollicking action-comedy “Thelma.”

The “Nebraska” actress fully embraces her inner action star in Josh Margolin’s clever Sundance comedy, portraying a grandmother on a quest for revenge after falling victim to phone scammers.

“June Squibb landing her first lead film role at 94 years old” is one of those facts that sounds too outlandish to be true, akin to the revelation that sharks predate trees or that sliced bread wasn’t invented until 1928. Despite being an Oscar nominee for her role in 2013’s “Nebraska,” Squibb has primarily played supporting characters throughout her illustrious career spanning decades, from commanding lead roles on stage to stealing scenes in films like “About Schmidt” and “Palm Springs.” Now, the beloved actress finally takes center stage, headlining the action-comedy “Thelma,” which premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The result is a delightful and uproarious homage to the excesses of action movies, serving as undeniable proof that Squibb’s ascension to a starring role was well worth the wait.

First-time writer-director Josh Margolin drew inspiration from his own relationship with his grandmother for the script, and Squibb shines as the endearing Thelma, an elderly widow who lives alone. The nonagenarian spends much of her time with her devoted grandson Daniel (portrayed by “The White Lotus” star Fred Hechinger), patiently guiding her through the intricacies of Gmail and indulging in movie marathons of the “Mission: Impossible” series on the couch. Thus, Thelma is understandably alarmed when she receives a call from a scammer posing as Daniel, claiming to be in jail following a car accident. The scammer manipulates her into sending $10,000 in cash to a nearby P.O. box, and by the time Thelma realizes she’s been deceived, her money has already vanished in the mail.

 

What follows is a blend of character study and outrageous action-comedy spoof, as Thelma embarks on a perilous journey to reclaim her lost funds. Determined to assert her independence, she keeps her mission to herself, not informing her family, including her grandson, her adult daughter (portrayed by Parker Posey), and her son-in-law (played by Clark Gregg). Instead, she relies on the assistance of an old family friend named Ben (portrayed by Richard Roundtree, in his final on-screen role before his passing in October 2023). Together, Thelma and Ben traverse suburban Los Angeles in an adventure that would impress even Ethan Hunt.
Margolin approaches his film with the enthusiasm of a true action aficionado, and “Thelma” delightfully subverts some of the genre’s most clichéd tropes. For instance, Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids serve as covert communication devices instead of high-tech gadgets, and instead of speeding through Europe in a flashy sports car, Thelma and Ben navigate the Valley on a two-seater mobility scooter. The score, reminiscent of “Mission: Impossible,” adds to the ambiance, particularly during tense moments when Thelma tackles daring feats, such as climbing on top of a wobbly bed to reach a box on a high shelf — a task made all the more perilous with a hip replacement. Margolin even injects humor into the classic “rounding up the crew” montage, only for Thelma to realize that each potential ally she might call upon has already passed away.
Despite the film’s comedic approach to action tropes, there’s a genuine tenderness beneath the humor. While a lesser actress might have turned Thelma into a caricature of retirement home life, Squibb infuses her character with thoughtful nuance and sweetness. Thelma maintains her fiery spirit, but she grapples with her reduced mobility and the recent loss of her husband. Squibb’s chemistry with Roundtree is especially delightful, and the pair share touching heart-to-heart moments about the challenges and joys of aging.
Ultimately, the core of the film lies in the relationship between grandmother and grandson. Margolin’s script revels in the comedic potential of a senior citizen action star, but it never diminishes Thelma’s character or makes her the target of ridicule. Instead, the director’s affection for his own grandmother shines through, infusing the film with warmth and heart. While not every joke lands perfectly, “Thelma” stands out as a rare spoof that manages to be both hilariously funny and genuinely sweet. Squibb, though new to the genre, proves herself worthy of a place alongside iconic action heroes like Ethan Hunt, John Wick, and John McClane.
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