Review by Sean Boelman
In recent years, Sundance has drifted more and more away from its indie roots, featuring premieres of films with A-list casts. Few titles at the festival this year have as recognizable of an ensemble as Thelma. While Josh Margolin’s comedic caper is far from perfect, but it rides on the strength of its talented cast and enjoyable tone to deliver an entertaining, if not particularly stirring romp.
Thelma follows an elderly woman who sets out on a quest across the city to get revenge after being duped by a scammer pretending to be her grandson. This is the type of movie where you know exactly where the story is going, but as with so many things in life, it’s not the destination that’s important, but the journey — and Margolin gives us one enjoyable ride.
If you’re looking to find something meaningful here, you’re looking in the wrong place. This is not some hard-hitting exposé about the wrongs committed against the most vulnerable in our society — it’s just a silly little comedy about an old woman doing things you don’t expect old women to do. In many ways, it’s a neo-noir with a grandma as the heroine.
Yet, for as absurd as the premise is and the far-fetched turns the story takes, Thelma manages to work thanks to how incredibly charming the characters are. Sure, the title character is just a stereotypical grandma, but that makes her impossible not to love. You’d have to be heartless not to be rooting for her to win against the evil scammers of the interwebs.
June Squibb’s performance in the leading role is so much fun to watch. Although it’s the same type of schtick we’ve seen the veteran actress do time and time again, her comedic timing is impeccable and never fails to charm. She doesn’t take the role too seriously, yet she is entirely believable and never feels like she is ridiculing the character.
The movie also boasts a decently star-studded supporting cast. The late Richard Roundtree has a fun role as one of Squibb’s sidekicks, and it’s a lovely little swan song for the acclaimed actor. Malcolm McDowell also has a memorable bit part. Others, like Fred Hechinger, Parker Posey, Nicole Byer, and Clark Gregg, don’t make much of an impact.
If one thing does hold the film back, it is the production values. It’s in the weird middle ground where it’s not scrappy enough to feel truly “indie,” but also not polished enough to be mainstream. It’s clear that Margolin had ambitions of this being a sleek, stylish genre exercise, but it doesn’t quite get there.
Thelma is nothing spectacular, but it is fun. Although you might expect this type of lighthearted, star-driven genre film less from Sundance and more from Tribeca or even SXSW, Thelma will serve as a nice reprieve from the more “elevated” fare at the festival. It knows exactly what it’s meant to do, and it delivers on that promise.
Thelma is screening at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.