“I didn’t expect to get so old,” sighs 93-year-old Thelma Post (June Squibb) in Josh Margolin’s hilarious and unexpectedly poignant mash-up of Point Blank and The Straight Story. Squibb, so good in Nebraska, once again represents for the hip-op generation, bringing wisdom and truth — plus the best waspish comic timing since Maggie Smith in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park — to a comic action-thriller that has fun with the pitfalls of old age (memory loss, deafness, an uncontrollable urge to talk to strangers) but does so with dignity and respect. Appeal should be across the board; indeed, the film would make a great May-December double bill with the 2022 Aubrey Plaza vehicle Emily the Criminal, a similar study of an ordinary woman sucked into a shady underworld.
Margolin lays out all the film’s key elements with refreshing speed, opening with 24-year-old Daniel (Fred Hechinger) patiently helping the recently widowed but still fiercely independent June access her emails in a scene that everyone can relate to (“What’s an ‘inbox’?” she wants to know). On the TV, Tom Cruise is running like a demon, and the two pause to reflect on his agility. Thelma is surprised to hear that Cruise does all his own stunts, no matter how death-defying (“That’s Cruise,” shrugs Daniel). Daniel is a goofy, likable slacker-type, with more than a passing resemblance to the young Brady Corbet, so audiences will be ahead of Thelma when, the next day, her cellphone rings and a garbled voice, claiming to be Daniel, tells her that he’s been in a violent car crash and that his nose has been broken. Seconds later, there’s another call, this time claiming that Daniel is in a cell and needs $10,000 cash for his release.
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Thelma calls round the family in a panic — Daniel, her daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and her son-in law Alan (Clark Gregg) — but none picks up. So Thelma makes her way to the Post Office and dutifully mails the money off to a deeply dubious P.O. Box number. When it becomes obvious that the call was a scam, Thelma understandably feels foolish, and though her family is understanding, she starts to feel patronized, too. Anger follows quickly behind, and a profile of Tom Cruise in the L.A. Times (headline: “Mission: Possible”) gives her the fillip she needs: She’s going to get the money back.
So begins a most unlikely and very funny revenge plan, which immediately hits a rock when Thelma calls round her friend group looking for backup (“Sepsis?” “Heart attack?”). “All my friends are dead,” she tells Daniel. But that’s not entirely true. There’s still Ben (Richard Roundtree), also bereaved, who she visits at his new home in sheltered accommodation. He loves it there; they have a great canteen, lots of classes, and he’s even landed a starring role as Daddy Warbucks in an amateur production of Annie. Thelma is more interested in his mobility scooter, which she attempts to steal. After a painfully slow chase through the care home, Ben gets it back, but even though he’s due on stage at 8 that evening, he decides to let Thelma have it, riding pillion with her when she finally sets off, leaving her family sick with worry.
Although primarily a comedy, Thelma succeeds because it isn’t a spoof. Margolin clearly loves action movies and finds inventive new ways to create tension, notably the use of Bluetooth hearing aids as walkie-talkies. In one bravura sequence, Thelma’s family closes in on her while she stops to chat with an old lady she thinks she recognizes. Luckily for her, they are held up by a rogue satnav device that insists on them taking a left turn across a dangerously busy intersection. In another, Thelma uses Ben as a decoy while she stealthily ransacks a senile old friend’s house looking for a gun, not realizing that the old dear doesn’t know what day it is anyway (“We’re not what we were,” says Ben later).
Time casts a long shadow across Thelma, and it’s a shame that Roundtree (aka Shaft), who died in October, didn’t get to attend the Sundance premiere and hear the applause that greeted the explosive callback to his 1996 movie Original Gangstas. Mortality, however, is baked into every aspect of Margolin’s movie, even when Thelma gets her showdown with the man who’s caused her so much misery (pay attention to the voice on the phone). Nevertheless, there’s nothing gloomy in its message or June Squibb’s barnstorming performance. As Bette Davis put it, old age ain’t no place for sissies.
Festival (Section): Sundance (Premieres)
Distribution: CAA Media Finance
Director/Screenwriter: Josh Margolin
Cast: June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Parkey Posey, Malcolm McDowell
Running time: 1 hr 37 min
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