Sundance Review: ‘Thelma’

June Squibb And Richard Roundtree Are A Perfect Action Duo In Josh Margolin's Delightful First Feature

As an “old lady action-movie,” Thelma is everything you want it to be. 

Directed and written by first-timer Josh Margolin and inspired by his own grandmother, the film follows 90-something Thelma Post (June Squibb) as she lives a mostly independent life in her small Los Angeles home. Her beloved grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger), comes over often to help her with technology and watch Tom Cruise films, but for the most part, she is functioning just fine. 

When an internet scammer (Malcolm McDowell) calls impersonating a lawyer and saying her grandson was responsible for a car accident, she listens to them and mails $10,000 to a Van Nuys P.O. box. While her family is relieved that she is okay, Thelma just can’t let it go. With the threat of possibly moving into an assisted living home by her overbearing daughter (Parker Posey) and opinionated son-in-law (Clark Gregg), she is determined to get her money back. 

Her embarrassment leads her on a journey across Los Angeles, ditching her grandson for Ben (Richard Roundtree), the husband of a deceased friend who she knows as a scooter. He joins her begrudgingly, but they soon hop on the mobility device in search of revenge, despite being chased by Thelma’s family.

In all of her years in show business, June Squibb has never had a starring role. She’s stolen plenty of films with supporting parts in acclaimed films like Blow the Man Down, Nebraska, Palm Springs, and Summer ‘03. She brings that scene-stealing quality she’s spent years perfecting to Thelma. Her comedic timing and delivery have never been sharper. She has chemistry with every single person she comes into contact with. She may have not been given this opportunity before but Squibb does not waste a second of it. 

Her performance is only elevated by Mangolin’s script. Fiercely funny, touchingly sweet, and outright intense at times, you would never know this was his first feature film. His ability to amplify the dangers of getting older makes everyday low-stakes tasks feel like the most thrilling feats in the world. Rolling over on a bed or walking up steps feels like running across a moving train or jumping off a building. 

Nick Chuba’s score is perfectly placed in these moments, adding a comedic intensity that could be likened to Ocean’s Eleven. Combined with Margolin’s direction and editing, Thelma is –without a doubt– an action film, complete with the visual motifs you’ve come to expect from the genre. Squibb finally gets her moment to walk away from an explosion. 

It would be wrong not to mention the late and great Richard Roundtree, who died in Oct. 2023. What a film and part to end on. Charming and still sexy, his Ben gives Thelma the wake-up call she needs to accept the reality of the situation. He blends with Squibb so beautifully and proves that he still has some of Shaft in him. 

Every time Fred Hechinger appears onscreen with Squibb, you can tell he just adores her. Playing the directionless but well-meaning grandson with overbearing parents might feel slightly similar to his role on The White Lotus, but that is quickly forgotten when it becomes clear how devoted he is to this lady onscreen and off. 

Over the last couple of years, filmmakers have explored the inner lives of elderly people wrestling with aging and giving up their autonomy. Last year’s Jules, Moving On (also starring Roundtree and McDowell), 80 for Brady, and the Book Club series come to mind. However, these comedies seem to work best when paired with another genre. With Thelma, the heist movie gets a June Sqiubb makeover and it’s never looked better.

Cortland Jacoby
A D.C area native, Cortland has been interested in media since birth. Taking film classes in high school and watching the classics with family instilled a love of film in Cortland’s formative years. Before graduating with a degree in English and minoring in Film Study from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Cortland ran the college’s radio station, where she frequently reviewed films on air. She then wrote for another D.C area publication before landing at Punch Drunk Critics. Aside from writing and interviewing, she enjoys podcasts, knitting, and talking about representation in media.
sundance-review-thelmaWith a near perfect script, brilliant performances led by the incomparable June Squibb, and smart direction from Josh Margolin, 'Thelma' is a crowd pleasing action comedy that will leave you cheering.