'Thelma' review: June Squibb lives her 'Mission

'Thelma' review: June Squibb lives her 'Mission

The "Nebraska" actress goes full action star in Josh Margolin's witty Sundance comedy, about a grandmother pursuing revenge after she’s deceived by phone fraudsters.

“June Squibb has her first lead film role at 94 years old” is one of those statements that seems too preposterous to be true, like how sharks are older than forests or how sliced bread wasn’t created until 1928. An Oscar nominee for her role in 2013’s Nebraska, Squibb has accumulated an impressive career that spans decades, from lead roles on the stage to scene-stealing performances in films including About Schmidt and Palm Springs. Now the revered actress is finally No. 1 on the call sheet, headlining the action-comedy Thelma, which premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The result is an endearing and amusing ode to action-movie excess, and it’s proof that Squibb’s lead role was well worth the wait.

First-time writer-director Josh Margolin based the script on his own relationship with his grandmother, and Squibb stars as the endearing Thelma, an aging widow who lives alone. The nonagenarian spends most of her time with her doting 20-something grandson Daniel (The White Lotus star Fred Hechinger), who painstakingly teaches her how to use Gmail and binges Mission: Impossible movies with her on the settee. So, Thelma is understandably alarmed when she receives a call from a fraudster professing to be Daniel, claiming to be in prison after a car accident. The fraudster instructs her to send $10,000 in cash to a nearby P.O. box, and by the time she realizes she’s been deceived, her money is already lost in the mail.

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What transpires is part character study, part preposterous action-movie parody, as Thelma sets out on a perilous mission to recover her vanishing moolah. Determined to prove her own independence, she keeps her reclamation mission a secret from her own family, including her grandson, her adult daughter (Parker Posey), and her son-in-law (Clark Gregg), only accepting help from an old family friend named Ben (Shaft’s Richard Roundtree, in his final on-screen role before his death in October 2023). Together, Thelma and Ben crisscross suburban Los Angeles in an adventure that would make Ethan Hunt proud.

Margolin approaches his film like a true action aficionado, and Thelma playfully subverts some of the genre’s most well-trodden clichés — like how Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids become furtive communication devices. Instead of racing around Europe in a showy sports vehicle, Thelma and Ben navigate the Valley on a two-seater mobility scooter. Even the score feels appropriately Mission: Impossible-esque, especially when Thelma braves perilous exploits like ascending on top of an unstable bed to reach — horror! — a crate on a high shelf. After all, every voyage seems far more perilous when you’re making it with a hip replacement. Margolin even pokes fun at the iconic “rounding up the crew” montage, only for Thelma to realize that every acquaintance she might contact is already deceased.

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But although the film’s action tropes are played for chuckles, there’s a genuine tenderness under all the humor. A inferior actress could’ve converted Thelma into a retirement home caricature, but Squibb, of course, lends a pensive and tender nuance to her heroine. Thelma retains her ardent flare, but she’s still coming to terms with her limited mobility and the recent loss of her spouse. Squibb’s rapport with Roundtree is also particularly endearing, and together, Thelma and Ben have a few poignant heart-to-hearts about the ups and downs of aging.

But ultimately, the heart of the film is the relationship between grandmother and grandson: Margolin’s script has fun with the inherent absurdity of a senior citizen action-star, but it never makes Thelma the butt of the joke, and the director’s obvious affection for his own grandma beams through. Not every comedy connects, but Thelma is the uncommon parody that’s both laugh-out-loud hilarious and disarmingly lovely. Squibb may be new to the genre, but Thelma earned her a position among all the Ethan Hunts, John Wicks, and John McClanes.