4 Stars

Thelma, the new film from director Josh Margolin, is a rumination on what it means to have aged, and the comedy-as well as the sorrow-found within that experience. Featuring a powerhouse performance by the remarkable June Squibb, this film also showcases the talents of Richard Roundtree, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, Malcolm McDowell and Fred Herschinger. The film is about an elderly woman, Thelma, played by Squibb, who lives with her grandson, Daniel, played by Herschinger, who is the one responsible for keeping an eye on Thelma, and showing her the ropes of her newfound computer. One day, she is scammed into giving money. Her family reacts oddly, and she determines to retrieve the money herself. As such, she enlists the aid of Ben, played by Roundtree. Her daughter and son in law, played by Posey and Gregg, react even less favorably to this development.

As Ben and Thelma journey across their city, the film shows us, in actions and words, just what it is like to have aged. Thelma often sees people she is certain she knows, and grows to realize, throughout her trying day, that she is nearly alone in the world. Most of her friends and family are dead or gone. Yet, she is not depressed. Nothing keeps her down. Indeed, given the crime committed against her, she did not panic. She simply, quietly, determined to grab a friend, a set of wheels-an electric scooter-and another friend’s gun. This is not a film about the why as much as the what, the how and the where, because it is about where you end up, how it happened and what you have done or will do about it.

Thelma - Thelma and Daniel

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film is funny because of how it handles characters responses to insane situations, and dramatic because it never forgets these are people with traumas and lives lived and lost before we became privy to them. In that sense, it feels more “real” than most comedies and, indeed, many dramas, too. There is little physical humor, relying for laughs and chuckles and smiles on interplay of words, on reactions-both facial and vocal-as well as never forgetting to tie it directly to character. Indeed, when the film’s climax takes place, in perhaps the best scene of the movie, you get a sense this is what it was always about.

There is much to learn from Thelma and she has much to teach. She is not perfect, but she is someone you would not mind having as a friend or as family. Her family obviously cares about her-and this is the one minor negative in an otherwise wonderful film. Posey is a terrific talent but her character veers from concerned daughter to near harridan and back, unsettling your sense of who and what that character is supposed to be. She serves to mostly be the one who does panic, and yet she is also the one who comforts another when they have a meltdown. If this is intended to show complexity, it is the one unconvincing aspect of the film.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

As the father, Gregg gets a great scene in a car, and McDowell, in his single onscreen sequence, nearly steals the show from Squibb. Yet it is Herschinger that becomes the other center of the film, showing real concern for his grandmother and learning to take responsibility for things. It is the relationship between Daniel and Thelma which forms the emotional core of the film, rounded out by the great Roundtree, who gets to have a Shaft moment or two, had Shaft been a loving family man that ended up with a titanium hip.

Squibb, at the age of 94, is in this movie, so full of life and wisdom, of love, and of steely resolve, that you want her Thelma to go on forever. Yet the film knows that our lives are finite and it is that which gives them meaning, something which is ever present. The film knows that aging is both beautiful and terrible, and that there is joy and horror. Yet, aside from everyday problems, would we be not better served noticing and celebrating the little things in life, and how truly remarkable surviving can be?

Thelma is now playing in theaters.

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