“Thelma” offers a fresh look at aging and film clichés

By Kirk Boxleitner

While action thrillers like Mission: Impossible aim to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, I have rarely felt such uncomfortable second-hand tension as in the opening sequence of Thelma, in which an elderly widow falls victim to a telephone scammer.

The scene builds tension and leads us through the scene where we see 93-year-old Thelma (June Squibb) receiving gentle instructions on navigating the Internet from her caring 24-year-old grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger). Danny is so good to his grandmother that we briefly share her initial panic when she gets a call claiming Danny has gotten into trouble.

Danny and Thelma love that Tom Cruise does his own stunts in the Mission: Impossible films, even though Cruise is already over 60. When Thelma overhears her daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg) debating whether she should move into a care facility, Thelma decides to take on the seemingly impossible mission and get her lost money back from the con artist whose address is not far away.

The wonderfully novel concept of “Thelma” is that writer-director Josh Margolin filters the everyday ailments and inconveniences of his protagonist’s advanced age through the lens of popcorn blockbuster cliches, treating hurdles like climbing carpeted stairs and standing up on a bed to reach a high shelf with all the seriousness of Tom Cruise’s speed runs across rooftops.

Along the way, Thelma gains an accomplice in Ben (Richard Roundtree), a friend of her late husband who moved into assisted living after the death of his own wife.

While it's hilarious to see Thelma and Ben use his two-seater electric scooter and medical alert bracelet to escape their worried family, it's also genuinely moving to see the two seniors try to cope with the slower pace: Thelma by doubling down on her stubborn determination, Ben by reluctantly acknowledging his new, unwelcome limitations.

John Shaft in the role of Ben is a significant casting decision, as Roundtree's last appearance as the ultra-masculine Shaft was in 2019, just five years ago. It hits hard when his character expresses his grief and guilt over his loss of power.

The entire cast is, as expected, excellent, and Posey and Gregg complement each other perfectly as an amusingly fussy couple whose care for their mother and adult son is marked by genuine warmth, if over-the-top attention.

An unexpected highlight is Hechinger as Danny, an insecure man-child who is actually a surprisingly positive role model for non-toxic masculinity because, although he is paralyzed by self-doubt over his own lack of useful life skills, he channels those fears into caring for his grandmother. He smiles and sits patiently with her as she tries to use her computer mouse properly.

Just as Ned Leeds plays “The Guy in the Chair” for Peter Parker in the Spider-Man films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Danny also fulfills the cliché of the tech-savvy voice in our hero's earpiece (or in Thelma's case, in her smartphone-connected hearing aid) from “Mission: Impossible.” He accompanies her through her final difficult trials to get back what is hers.

While other post-adolescents on screen smugly revel in their idleness, Danny is endearing in his earnest desire to improve himself, even though his emotional development was probably stunted by his parents making too much of a fuss over every little problem in their lives.

Even Danny's ex-girlfriend Allie — Coral Peña, taking a break between seasons from her consistent awesomeness on Apple TV+'s For All Mankind — seems to believe in him, almost as much as his loving grandmother, with Allie expressing her support for Danny's aspirations to do (and be) better.

Squibb herself remains as effortlessly natural a performer as she was when I first saw her, sharing the screen with Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk and Stacy Keach in Alexander Payne's 2013 comedy-drama Nebraska. She is so real as Thelma that I felt a palpable sense of fear as she unwittingly fell for the phone scammer's scheme.

I don't want to give anything away about the last famous actor I haven't mentioned yet, but I would like to note that his role also underlines his advanced age, given some of the larger-than-life characters he has played before.

The whole thing ends with a scaled-down version of the slow walk away from an explosion that is obligatory for the genre parodied by “Thelma.”

Stick around long enough for the end credits to catch a glimpse of the real-life woman who apparently inspired our indefatigable heroine.