Sundance 2024 Review

Tom Cruise Has Some Competition with Thelma

Nonagenarian June Squibb teams up with Shaft’s Richard Roundtree to get revenge against some phone scammers.

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Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in Thelma
David Bolen/The Sundance Institute
Sundance Film Festival

Tom Cruise was pushing 60 when he sprinted across the London skyline (and broke his foot trying to leap from one rooftop to the next, but that’s another story) in Mission: Impossible — Fallout. In action star years, that’s positively geriatric — but to the nonagenarian Thelma Post (the delightful June Squibb), it’s all the affirmation she needs.

Thelma is certainly getting on in years, but she’s tougher than anyone gives her credit for. Sure, she’s been through a cancer diagnosis, a double mastectomy, a valve replacement, a hip replacement, and an allegedly-benign tumor. She’s also lived through nearly a century of American history, the tail-end of which she’s still acclimating to. It’s why she frequently enlists the help of her doting grandson, Daniel (The White LotusFred Hechinger) to explain the importance of inboxes and various computer jargon.

Daniel is one of the few people in Thelma’s life that doesn’t treat her like a china doll. He’s wary of her health, but he’s also respectful of her autonomy — and very aware of her inner moxie. It’s Daniel who puts Thelma on to Cruise’s impossible missions... and inadvertently serves as the catalyst for a mission of her own.

Thelma’s affection for her grandson is later exploited by a group of phone scammers. When she gets a call from a boy that sort of sounds like Daniel, claiming that he’s stuck in jail and in dire need of $10,000 bail, Thelma moves heaven and earth to secure the funds and send them to a private P.O. box upstate. Before she makes any moves, she tries to get a hold of her daughter Gail (Parker Posey, always great) and son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg). Neither of them answer her emergency calls in time. By the time they do, Thelma’s lost everything.

This sort of phishing scam has duped countless marks; it nearly snared director Josh Margolin’s real-life muse, his 103-year-old grandmother. She serves as the inspiration for Thelma, but his debut feature explores the worst-case scenario. With what is essentially Thelma’s retirement money lost to the winds, her family seems all too eager to shuffle her off to an assisted care facility.

Thelma has lived alone since the passing of her husband Ted, and with the bulk of her peers now living in nursing homes, it seems it’s now Thelma’s turn. Her stolen funds are not high on anyone’s priority list: not even the police can help her retrieve it. If she wants her money back — more importantly, if she wants to prove she’s not completely helpless — then she’ll have to get it back herself. And thanks to the works of Tom Cruise, she believes that it’s at least possible.

Thelma’s central dynamic is one of the film’s many highlights.

David Bolen/The Sundance Institute

For all her saucy independence, Thelma can’t pull off this impossible mission alone. Aiding her on her quest is Ben (the late, great Richard Roundtree), a former friend of her husband’s who now wiles his days away in a nursing home. He’s living a full enough life — rehearsing for a production of Annie, among other extracurriculars — but in Thelma’s eyes, his fate is the very thing she’d like to avoid. Asking for help is an occupation for suckers: that’s why she’d rather steal Ben’s brand-new scooter from under his nose, and ditch the Life Alert-esque gadget that Daniel begs her to wear. Notably, it does track her location, so it’s probably better off left behind.

It’ll be harder to shake Ben from her trail. He becomes the Luther Stickell to Thelma’s Ethan Hunt, thanks to an ingenious use of their Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids and an abundance of skills he’s picked up in assisted living. It’s already a pleasure seeing Roundtree getting in on some action in one of his last acting roles, but Thelma makes even finer use of the Shaft actor by giving him the space to explore the emotional burden of growing old. Roundtree exhibits aching empathy as Ben: his efforts to connect to Thelma, and support their surviving friends, are massively affecting. He’s the perfect foil for Squibb’s spitfire tendencies, and together, their push-and-pull generates some of the film’s best moments.

As far as action capers go, Thelma is decidedly low-stakes. But Margolin goes to great pains to contextualize everyday nuisances through a more elderly lens: pop-up ads, creaky stairs, and firearms each carry a newfound sense of danger. As Thelma is nothing like a Tom Cruise vehicle, we know that our title heroine will make it out alive... but some of her scrapes do find their way into genuinely nail-biting territory. Squibb juggles it all with the skill of the seasoned character actor she is. It’s hard to believe she’s never been given a role as juicy and substantial as Thelma, but her performance is proof that no opportunity is too late.

Of course, it’s immensely satisfying watching Squibb make a meal out of her role. She’s a walking one-woman army — but in her quest to teach her loved ones a thing or two about her own autonomy, Thelma ends up learning a few crucial lessons herself. With Squibb embodying unflinching curiosity, brazen self-reliance, and timeworn vulnerability, Thelma becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. Sure, it’s an action vehicle with training wheels, but it’s also a reminder to treat the most vulnerable among us with the respect they deserve — and to underestimate them at our own peril.

Thelma premiered Jan. 18 at the Sundance Film Festival.

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