Sundance Film Festival 2024: Thelma review

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger in Thelma.
June Squibb and Fred Hechinger in Thelma. Pic credit: Sundance

Thelma is a charming little film. One that might make moviegoers want to call or hug their grandmothers.

The dilemma of aging is inescapable. But Thelma’s another film that shows the resilience and humor of getting to the golden years. In a sense, it has commonalities with the Grumpy Old Men films. Only here, it’s a 93-year-old woman using the minimal skills she has left to solve a mystery.

To put it mildly, if watching a suspenseful chase on scooters was on the cinematic bucket list, Thelma is the movie to watch.

Written and directed by Josh Margolin, Thelma revolves around a 93-year-old woman named Thelma, who is still quite agile for her age. Thelma is quite fond of her grandson Danny (played by Fred Hechinger), who teaches her how to use a computer at the beginning of the movie.

Despite her stability, Thelma still needs to use a LifeAlert device. While spirited and determined, her age makes her susceptible to falls, which can have serious consequences.

In the film, Thelma receives a call from someone claiming to be her grandson, who says he has been arrested and needs bail money. Thelma, unfortunately, sends the money, not understanding it is a scam. And well, she wants it back. Despite the objections of others, Thelma decides to track down the imposter when she discovers that he used AI technology to scam her out of ten thousand dollars.

As the story progresses, Thelma’s narrative dives into comedic territory using the mechanics of vulnerability. For instance, when Thelma’s family pursues her across the city, she employs her life button to divert their attention. Such small details in Thelma’s story make the writing clever.

Josh Margolin’s empathetic direction

The sincere approach to depicting the limitations of getting older adds to the vulnerability discussion. This writer is a person with a disability. Often, it can feel like one is 93 at a surprisingly young age. Thelma is authentic in portraying trying to do everyday things with limitations. Anyone below 50 and able-bodied might not struggle with a simple task, such as two flights of stairs. But in Thelma, watching a 93-year-old woman prepare to climb them on her own somehow becomes as suspenseful as Taken.

In these moments, June Squibb is excellent as Thelma. She is more than willing to go above and beyond in every scene she is given. More impressive, the longtime actress is the same age as the character. Given the performance, this writer assumed Squibb was much younger. She is simply lovely in this film.

The film Thelma has some imperfections. The plot relies on unrealistic coincidences at various points, making it less believable. The writing takes the safest approach whenever characters are in danger, which can sometimes feel predictable. However, this didn’t mean Thelma needed to take a major narrative risk. The developments could have felt more natural with a few minor adjustments to the story.

Thelma is anchored by an incredibly charming cast of familiar faces. Parker Posey plays Gail (Thelma’s daughter) alongside the Marvel icon himself, Clark Gregg as her son-in-law Alan. Together, the two play slightly antagonistic roles as they look for any reason to place Thelma in a nursing home. This movie also serves as a swan song to Richard Roundtree. The iconic actor who played Shaft makes an endearing final performance in the film.

For a movie like Thelma, it’s difficult to be too critical. It’s a sweet and sentimental love letter to older adults – nothing more. The press notes say the movie is based on a real-life occurrence in Josh Margolin’s life, which begs the question: How much of this is accurate, and how do we hang out with Margolin’s amazing grandmother?

June Squibb delights in Thelma

Overall, Thelma is a charming, imperfect little film that most Sundance viewers will embrace. June Squibb is an absolute delight in the titular role, and viewers will sense she is having the time of her life.

Much like minority groups, such as various cultures, ethnicities, and disabilities, the elderly deserve representation as well. And within Thelma’s silly exterior is an empathetic perspective towards this age group.

Many of the films at Sundance can touch on heavy subjects and dour narratives. Those seeking a more lighthearted film should watch Thelma as a fun little palate cleanser.

For Sundance attendees at home, read our list of anticipated films available for viewing on the streaming platform. Also, read past reviews from the 2023 festival, such as Sometimes I Think About Dying and Kim’s Video.

Stay tuned for more Sundance coverage at Monsters and Critics.

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