This review is part of our coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: Elderly widow Thelma (June Squibb) is quietly enjoying her golden years when she gets a series of terrifying phone calls — first, someone who sounds like her beloved grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger), claims to be in legal trouble, then a strange man who tells her that she has to mail $10,000 to an P.O. box in order to save him. Panicked, Thelma does so, only realizing after the fact that she’s been duped, and that there’s nothing the police will do.
Thelma’s determined to do something, though — if only to prove to her concerned daughter and son-in-law (Parker Posey and Clark Gregg) that she’s still capable of living on her own. So, with some help from Ben (Richard Roundtree), one of her few remaining friends, Thelma sets out on her mission, one that will take her from… well, one corner of the San Fernando Valley to the other. Still, that’s a pretty big trip, on a mobility scooter.
“My Mother Is At Large!”: Thelma writer/director Josh Margolin has, if nothing else, created the second half of a perfect double feature with The Beekeeper, which shares some narrative beats (though with a darker twist). And while Thelma is lighter in tone, the spirit of Jason Statham and John Wick and other fictional badasses is very present as Thelma works to track down her money, and the men responsible for taking it.
In a way, Thelma is a parody, though the satire isn’t buried under the surface — it’s more like a veneer that hovers over the narrative, coming into sharper detail when Thelma’s on the move. The action itself remains grounded in realism, but when Nick Chuba’s sharp and compelling score kicks into gear and the editing is cooking, a sequence in which Thelma makes a daring escape from Ben’s nursing home plays like Mission: Impossible. (Thelma can’t run quite as fast as Tom Cruise, but she’s got just as much pluck.)
Tropes like the “recruiting a team” montage take on a different tone, though, when everyone you might recruit for your team is a friend who passed away. It’s elements like this that elevate Thelma above mere parody, as it embeds itself in the reality of that phase of life: Enjoying the time you have left, while being very aware that it’s running out.
Watch Out, Ethan Hunt: The cast of Thelma is small but mighty, with June Squibb digging into the role with relish. Squibb’s no newcomer to comedy (in the HBO comedy special 7 Days in Hell, she played a vengeful Queen Elizabeth who at one point beats up Kit Harington), but this showcases her whole range of talents in a really exciting way; she knows just when to turn on the “little old lady” charm, and when to turn it on its head.