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Review: Skillful directorial debut 'Thelma' a love letter to tough grandmas

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service on

Published in Entertainment News

Back in January, Jason Statham starred in the action thriller “The Beekeeper” as a former special operations assassin who seeks revenge on a group of people targeting the elderly in phone scams. But in Josh Margolin’s directorial debut “Thelma,” it’s the elderly who fight back against the phone scammers themselves. Ninety-three-year-old grandmother Thelma (June Squibb) doesn’t need no stinkin’ Jason Statham. All she needs is a ride.

Set over the course of one day, “Thelma” is a love letter to tough grandmas and Tom Cruise, and a celebration of California’s San Fernando Valley, from Encino to Van Nuys. And while “Thelma” is notable for being the very first lead film role for the 94-year-old Squibb, who has been performing for 65 years, the film is also a calling card for writer/director/editor Margolin, who demonstrates his skill with screen style and suspense in this high-stakes dramedy.

Margolin does a lot with a little in “Thelma,” which is inspired by his own relationship with his beloved grandmother, also named Thelma. While the setting may be humble, Margolin captures the unlikely beauty of the Valley, and injects thrilling suspense into this yarn, rendering quotidian dramas — like making an unprotected left turn, or closing pop-up ads on a webpage — into nail-biting action sequences.

His surrogate in “Thelma” is Daniel (Fred Hechinger), a 24-year-old sensitive ne’er-do-well whose best friend is his grandmother Thelma (Squibb). They spend time together in her comfortable home, which is haunted by the absence of her recently deceased husband, watching “Mission: Impossible” movies, Daniel helping Thelma with her computer and fretting over her safety. When Thelma receives a frantic call with the news that Daniel’s been in an accident and she needs to send $10,000 in cash, she doesn’t hesitate to book it over to the Encino post office to drop the money in the mailbox.

It’s when she finds out she’s been the victim of a scam that the plot kicks into gear. With Daniel safe and unharmed, the police aren’t much help, and her family (Parker Posey as her daughter, Clark Gregg as her son-in-law) throw up their hands in defeat. But Thelma isn’t about to take this lying down. She will, however, take it sitting down, behind the wheel of a two-seater scooter she “borrows” from an old friend, Ben (Richard Roundtree), whom she visits at an assisted living home. The two set off on an odyssey to retrieve Thelma’s cash, while Thelma’s family worry about her whereabouts.

Their journey takes them to some unexpected places, specifically an antique lamp shop manned by a menacing Malcolm McDowell, and to some unexpected realizations, about accepting that it’s OK to ask for help, but that independence is a rare, and complicated gift later in life. It’s refreshing to see a film where someone in their 90s is able to have new revelations and learning experiences, retaining the capacity to surprise and delight themselves and others.

Squibb is a delightful presence, capably handling the humor and the heart of the story, and demonstrating true grit too, while the late, great Roundtree offers a warm, steadying presence. Posey and Gregg bring the comedic elements as the frazzled parents of Daniel, while Hechinger is charmingly stressed about losing his grandma and trying to figure out what he’s going to do with his life.

The cast is fantastic, but it’s the cinematic style that makes “Thelma” a proper big-screen movie experience. Nick Chuba’s percussive score brings a jazzy beat that’s “Ocean’s 11” by “Mission: Impossible,” and David Bolen’s cinematography is richly saturated with color and creative practical lighting. Margolin’s inspired direction elevates “Thelma,” imbuing each moment with a thoughtful eye towards craft.

“Elderly female action star” is a cute premise, but Margolin makes the most of it without infantilizing his heroine or otherwise resorting to lowest common denominator humor. Instead, he delivers a film that suggests there’s always an opportunity to experience something new in life, from the smallest observations to the most dramatic showdowns. The most important lesson of all? Underestimate a determined older woman at your own risk.

 

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‘THELMA’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong language)

Running time: 1:37

How to watch: in theaters June 21

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