Ever wonder what a Mission: Impossible movie would look like if it centered on a 93-year-old grandmother? If so, you’re in luck! Thelma is here to answer that curious query for you. And the answer is: downright delightful.
Following in the footsteps of action-comedies like the sports spoof Shaolin Soccer and the student heist flick Bad Genius, Thelma treats its low stakes with a tongue-in-cheek intensity. Action sequences — like a mobility scooter chase around a retirement home — are less nerve-rattling and more rib-tickling. Remarkably, the joke is never on the old folks at the movie’s heart.
Thelma is inspired by a true story — sort of.
Written and directed by Josh Margolin, Thelma stars Academy Award nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) as a widowed nonagenarian who is a “little wobbly” but a “very determined…tough cookie.” So, when some scammers trick her out of thousands by pretending to be her beloved grandson Daniel (Fear Street‘s Fred Hechinger) in desperate need of bail money, Thelma isn’t going to just sit back and take it.
Thelma’s daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg) are just relieved no one got hurt, and the police simply shrug when Thelma reports the swindle. Daniel is dealing with troubles of his own, like a break-up and his parents’ suffocating attention. So, Thelma recruits her reluctant pal Ben (Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree in his final film performance) to help her track down the crooks and get her money back!
Incredibly, Margolin drew from personal inspiration to craft this tale. In real life, his own adored grandmother is a sharp lady who’d been conned over the phone by scammers exploiting her love of her family. Rattled that some creep could take advantage of his Thelma, Margolin imagined a Hollywood scenario where she could get her happy ending — and the crook his just desserts. While the resulting film takes a lot of liberties with the truth, Margolin’s love for his grandmother shines through in how his senior heroine is depicted.
June Squibb and Richard Roundtree are a dynamic duo.
Too often in films, the elderly are painted as tragic, dotty, or definitely past their prime. Thelma rejects this ageist trope (see also: Swan Song and Grumpy Old Men), painting its eponymous protagonist as a vibrant woman who values her independence, hates the discomfort of her MedicAlert bracelet, and appreciates a good Tom Cruise action movie. All her “friends are dead,” but she advises doting grandson Daniel that they’ve got to be like Tom Cruise and “always land on your feet.”
Through a casual but comedic introduction of this cross-generational hangout, Margolin gives us a good feel for who Thelma is on an average day. But once that crooked call comes through, we see an exciting new side of her as she treks through Los Angeles to seek out the scammers — mobility issues be damned! Tapping into a classic good-cop/bad-cop dynamic, Thelma is a rule-breaker while her old friend Ben (Roundtree) is a by-the-books guy, happily whiling away his days in a retirement community. That is, until Thelma kicks him into gear.
Squibb and Roundtree share a warm chemistry that feels like they’ve known each other for decades. She’s the feisty grandma who’s so familiar that I admittedly teared up missing my own. (Monica was a total Thelma.) He’s a man who’s earned his retirement, but age hasn’t robbed him of boldness or kindness. Together, they pull off comically low-stakes action sequences, like a showdown with the iconic Malcolm McDowell that is as surprising and exciting as it is hilarious. Amid this senior-specific action, there are great one-liners, like Thelma’s insistence that she can figure out how to use a stolen gun: “How hard can it be? Idiots use them all the time!”
Thelma is a tale of underdogs coming out on top.
Like the classic Shel Silverstein poem The Little Boy and the Old Man, Thelma presents the plights of being old and young as parallels. At the film’s start, both Thelma and 24-year-old Daniel are underestimated by Gail and Alan, whose coddling — while well-intentioned — can feel condescending. And both feel adrift, unsure of what their next chapter can offer. But inspired by Tom Cruise and his determination to do his own Mission: Impossible stunts, Thelma and Daniel find they can be their own heroes.
Hechinger’s crooked grin carries a mischievousness that pairs perfectly with Squibb’s determined glare. They are kindred spirits in reckless adventure. Elegantly and warmly, Margolin’s movie reminds us that age is just a number, as shown by how these two truly see each other across generational barriers. It’s beyond heart-warming — watching these characters rediscover themselves while supporting each other is good for the soul.
In the end, Thelma laughs at the absurdity of aging, not the elderly. While there are jokes about senility and the infirmities that come with getting older, Thelma and her friends aren’t the butt of them. We all are. There’s a comforting relatability in their obstacles’ familiarity, which never tips into bleakness; the tone of the film is determinedly resilient, and its color palette soft and inviting. These heroes might fall, but like Tom Cruise, they’ll get up again, perhaps inspiring us as they rise. Bolstered by some cheeky action tropes, including twists, chases, gunplay, and even an explosion, Thelma is more than a winsome romp. It’s a real thrill.
Thelma was reviewed out of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.