Sundance Review / Thelma: June Squibb Carries Hilarious Comedy

Sundance Review / Thelma: June Squibb Carries Hilarious Comedy
June Squibb and Fred Hechinger appear in Thelma by Josh Margolin, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by David Bolen.

No one likes to be told that they’re not capable of being in charge of their own life. But as people age and faculties begin to diminish, those who have previously taken care of themselves may need to depend on someone else. That can be a difficult transition, especially for someone whose mental capacity remains strong while their body isn’t keeping up in the same way. Thelma presents a truly hilarious story of one nonagenarian who is absolutely not going to let her family tell her that she’s no longer able to take care of herself.

Thelma (June Squibb) lives alone and enjoys a warm relationship with her grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger), who worries about her not wearing her life alert bracelet but puts considerably less pressure on her than his parents, Gail (Parker Posey) and Alan (Clark Gregg), do. When Thelma gets scammed by a caller pretending to be Danny, she’s upset to learn that the police can’t do anything to get her money back. Determined to prove that this isn’t the last straw that will necessitate her moving into an assisted living facility, Thelma sets out to find the scammer on her own, starting with a visit to Ben (Richard Roundtree), an old friend who has something she desperately needs: a scooter.

This film is a true crowd-pleaser, marking writer-director Josh Margolin’s feature directorial debut. Inspired by his relationship with his own grandmother, who is currently 103 years old, he takes some major leaps in crafting a larger-than-life comedy about what might have happened had she decided to pursue the person who in real life stole her money. What ensues is a sincerely enjoyable tale of a woman who is all about defying expectations, rarely moving very quickly but fully set on what she’s going to do next. This is a film that delivers exactly what it promises, an action-comedy with a ninety-three-year-old lead who does a phenomenal job anchoring a film all by herself.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb appear in Thelma by Josh Margolin, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by David Bolen.

Squibb has been acting regularly for more than three decades, earning her first Oscar nomination, for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, in 2013. She’s the perfect choice for this role, capable of conveying frustrated stubbornness to all those around her and delivering deadpan observations about things she either truly doesn’t understand or is just not interested in discussing. She’s in full control of her performance, one that surely did ask her to contemplate her age and what she might no longer be able to do. But she’s absolutely terrific and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

The rest of the cast performs well too, adding to an effective comedy experience. Hechinger plays a far more mature young adult than the one he portrayed in season one of The White Lotus, conveying a genuine goodheartedness coupled with some crippling self-confidence issues to the role. Posey and Gregg each bring a certain intensity to their seemingly narrow-minded, overprotective parents and children, and it’s nice to see them grow slightly over the course of the film. The true standout of the supporting cast is the late Roundtree, who died of cancer at the age of eighty-one this past October, who makes for a fantastic unwilling sidekick who doesn’t simply put up with all of Thelma’s antics.

This film isn’t overly sophisticated but it does capture, in an exaggerated way, realities that anyone who has or had aging parents or grandparents will be able to relate to almost immediately. Thelma happens to be more with it and capable than many who nonetheless share her iron will, but she’s still prone to mishaps that she doesn’t even notice because her hearing aids aren’t turned up. As an ode to the power of family and individuality, this film works very well, but it’s best appreciated as a glorious comedy with superb performances and a genuinely enjoyable energy. 

Grade: B+

Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.

Thelma makes its world premiere in the Premieres section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

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