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Josh Margolin Thelma Review

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Thelma | Review

Thelma | Review

Grandma Scamma: Margolin Steals a Win with Squibb

Josh Margolin Thelma ReviewAlthough there’s a prodigious sub-genre of kooky comedies featuring elderly resilient women (though more often in European cinema), few of them steer clear of screwball conceits which often seem cheap or cheesy. A formidable exception to such expected tropes is Josh Margolin’s debut, Thelma, a strangely cheerful odyssey built upon a rather somber dramatic catalyst. Headlined by Academy Award nominee June Squibb, who for the first time is playing a lead role, a warmly conducted supporting cast assists in a stellar ensemble achievement (made all the more bittersweet due to the recent passing of the iconic Richard Roundtree only three months prior to the film’s premiere). There have been a number of recent films, both in the US and abroad, focusing on elderly victims targeted by phone and internet scams, but Margolin, despite some required suspension of disbelief, adds a generous amount of compassion and resourcefulness to an unfortunate, often ruinous reality.

Thelma (Squibb) has just learned how to navigate the internet, kinda, thanks to her grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger). Widowed two years ago, she has been adjusting to her newfound alone time quite successfully, despite a minor episode of short-term memory impairment several months ago. When she receives a frantic phone call from Danny claiming to have been in a car accident and needing ten thousand dollars in cash mailed immediately to a P.O. box, Thelma first tries to call Danny’s cell phone, and then her daughter, Gail (Parker Posey). Believing she must act immediately on the request, Thelma follows instructions, and drops the envelope off at the post office.

When Danny, Gail, and her son-in-law (Clark Gregg) finally reach her, it’s discovered she was scammed. And unfortunately, there’s nothing the police can do. As her family murmurs quietly about how they’re going to handle Thelma, who clearly isn’t making ‘sound’ decisions, she decides to take matters into her own hands by visiting the P.O. box herself, and follow whoever empties it. As she goes through her contact list, it appears the only friend who might be able to help her is Ben (Richard Roundtree), who she visits at his nursing home, requesting to borrow his motorized wheelchair. Ben eventually relents, and the two of them trek across the Valley in Los Angeles to reclaim what is rightfully Thelma’s.

We’ve seen Squibb play spunky women before, with some arguing it may be her forte thanks to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), who previously cast her in a much smaller role as the dead wife of Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt (2002). She’s often the plucky comedic support, so Thelma feels like something of a novelty in exploring a three dimensional character who has, for the first time in her adult life, been allowed to be alone thanks to the recent passing of her husband—-and finds she’s enjoying her solitude. Her anguish at being duped, and thus threatening her self sufficiency, is all the more frustrating because she has such a loving support system thanks to her affable, if haphazard grandson and her overprotective daughter, played quite warmly by Fred Hechinger and Parker Posey. Along with Clark Gregg as her son-in-law, her trio of relatives exemplify a broad but believable mixture of neuroses and attachment issues, all of them a bit too enmeshed to see how suffocating their concern can sometimes be.

What’s really impressive, however, is how Margolin crafts a day-long odyssey for Thelma underlined with menace but never feeling mawkish. These plot elements have been used frequently in several recent films, such as this year’s The Beekeeper, with Phylicia Rashad committing suicide after her accounts are drained. From Bulgaria, Blaga’s Lessons (2023) finds Eli Skorcheva returning to the screen after a decades’ long absence, a victim who is forced to become a victimizer in order to survive. What happens to Thelma is upsetting but not construed with such detrimental consequences. However, Thelma is determined to a fault. Her attempts to steal her old friend Ben’s motorized wheelchair allows for a somewhat bemused partner in crime (made all the more zany because Roundtree has to get back to the nursing home that same evening so he can play Daddy Warbucks in a production of Annie). Stealing a gun from another friend, Mona (Bunny Levine), who it would appear shouldn’t be living alone in a cockroach infested home as she watches footage of hummingbirds on television, only bolsters Thelma’s urgency as a woman who has little time left to be herself while left to her own devices. Besides Ben, it seems all her old cohorts are dead or resigned to the inevitable.

Margolin dances around the potential danger of the third act by presenting a villainous mastermind (Malcolm McDowell, of course) who’s in as dire straits as his victims, but the results are sweetly satisfying. Adding to the charm is a brief turn from Nicole Byer as one of the perplexed nursing home staff members forced to deal with Thelma’s family members, while the specter of Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible is her unexpected inspiration for taking control of an unfortunate situation. For anyone out there missing their spry, loving grandmother who inspires boldness thanks to her resistance in being told what she can and cannot do, Thelma is a sweet, affectionate investment.

Reviewed on January 18th at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres section. 97 mins.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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