The HoloFiles

REVIEW: Thelma

By George & Josh Bate

thelma review

Anyone who has had the opportunity to be around an aging grandparent or another older age person will likely have some insight into the myriad of struggles the elderly face. Declining physical health is often accompanied with growing cognitive deficits, which collectively rob elderly people of their autonomy and reduce them, in many ways, to children in need of care. Despite the attention these difficulties warrant, there is a distinct lack of representation in film and television for the elderly – in particular elderly women. Yes, older people often feature in movies, but rarely as the main character and even more rarely in a film that spotlights the distinct problems that come with aging. Offering a refreshing counterpoint to this trend is Thelma, a new comedy that puts an elderly woman and her issues with aging front and center.

Thelma marks the feature directorial debut of Josh Margolin and stars 94-year-old June Squibb as the titular character. Thelma lives a relatively lonely life in Los Angeles after the passing of her husband several years earlier. Providing her company and support is her caring grandson Danny (played by Fred Hechinger), who has his own struggles with independence and identity as an emerging adult. When she loses $10,000 to a phone scammer, an emboldened Thelma teams up with her old friend Ben (played by Richard Roundtree) and his handy two-person motorized scooter to track down the scammer and get her money back, much to the dismay of her grandson and family.

thelma review

The greatest success of Thelma is its ability to touchingly convey real issues with a sense of humor that never resorts to ridicule. One moment, we see Thelma heartbreakingly look upon the picture of her deceased partner and spend her day counting pills and watching television. And, the next moment, she comes out with a bizarre and truly hilarious remark to her grandson. It is a difficult tonal balance, so frequently fluctuating between heart and humor, but one that director/writer Margolin achieves with grace and craft. 

The beginning of the film paints a picture of what Thelma’s life looks like. Surviving to the age of 94 has come with its fair share of challenges, most striking of which is a growing lack of autonomy. Thelma’s loving grandson Danny, daughter Gail (played by Parker Posey), and son-in-law Alan (played by Clark Gregg) are all well-intentioned, although their care for Thelma overreaches and ultimately infantilizes her. While many adults of her age have considerable functional impairment and cognitive decline, Thelma still possesses much of her faculties – she is still good on her feet, largely takes care of herself, and retains a witty sense of humor. This fact, however, doesn’t stop her family from excessively caring for her and, unfortunately, underestimating her. When Thelma falls victim to a phone scammer, her family attribute the situation to Thelma’s age and speculate whether she should no longer live independently. It is heartbreaking to see Thelma struggle with the physical difficulties of aging, but even more heartbreaking to see the sadness in her eyes at being underestimated and infantilized. 

thelma review

Integral to Thelma’s journey is her grandson Danny, played by The White Lotus and The Fear Street Trilogy’s Fred Hechinger. Danny cares deeply for his grandmother, spending significant time with her, respecting her more than others, and urging her to wear a life alert for the sake of his mental health. Danny and Thelma’s relationship is extremely touching and the chemistry between Squibb as Thelma and Hechinger as Danny is so organic. Danny also has his own struggles that nicely parallel those of Thelma’s. Danny is 24-years-old, recently single after splitting up from his girlfriend, and struggling without a job or much direction in life. Like his grandmother, he is treated like a child and underestimated by his family. In a film that is firmly centered around its titular character, there is surprising emotional depth to its supporting players.

This depth to supporting characters is also evidenced through Richard Roundtree’s Ben. Roundtree’s character is an old friend of Thelma’s, who Thelma visits in order to ‘borrow’ his motorized scooter. Ben lives in an elderly people’s care facility and is preparing for his role as Daddy Warbucks in the facility’s play of Annie when Thelma arrives and takes his scooter. Ben soon after joins Thelma on the journey to find the scammer and retrieve her stolen money, which allows the film to lean into buddy comedy humor. Thelma marks Richard Roundtree’s final acting performance after he passed away in October 2023, and there’s something immensely fitting and beautiful that Roundtree’s last role is in a project this heartfelt. Ben has the charisma and warmth that made Roundtree such a star in the 1970s and his character’s arc similarly touches on elderly people’s dependence on others, desire for autonomy, and emotional difficulties as a result of losing those close to him.

Roundtree and Hechinger impress in Thelma, but the film is fundamentally June Squibb’s. Squibb is a renowned character actress, who has featured in a variety of films, including Alice, The Age of Innocence, Nebraska, and, most recently, Inside Out 2. Despite such a storied career in theater and film, Squibb has never had a leading role – that is, until Thelma. In addition to being as endearing as it is funny, Thelma also triumphs as a showcase for the incredible talent of June Squibb. Squibb conveys so much emotion and complexity with lines and in moments that would fail to have the impact if in the hands of other actors. It is not a showy performance, but, rather, one that taps into strong emotions through subtle lines and facial expressions. Squibb is the heart and soul of Thelma, integral to the film’s success both as a comedy and touching drama.

VERDICT: 8.5/10

Thelma stands apart from other films for its genuine and heartfelt attention to the struggles of the elderly, including physical health problems, cognitive decline, loneliness, grief, and loss of autonomy. Never ridiculing this cinematically underrepresented group and, instead, retaining an authentic and well-intentioned hilariousness throughout, the film strikes a rare balance in eliciting laughs and tears in equal measure. Fred Hechinger and Richard Roundtree shine in supporting roles as Thelma’s grandson and friend respectively, but Thelma is firmly a vehicle for June Squibb’s talent to shine. And, yes, it shines brightly as Squibb delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, deftly conveying complex emotions with such subtle line delivery and facial expressions. The pacing is vibrant, the story is gripping, and the emotions it taps into are both strong and moving, making Thelma a success in every regard and evidence in favor of more films centered around the difficulties faced by the elderly.

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