‘Thelma’ Movie Review: A Funny and Sincere Action-Adventure at Sundance

Sundance can always be an interesting start to the cinematic year. The festival’s films thrive on teasing audiences about the potential of great movies. In some cases, those films can even lead to prestigious Oscar winners like Coda. That does not mean every Sundance film has to have aspirations for awards. Some titles can simply be fun genre exercises, highlighting lesser-known character actors. Thelma, written and directed by Josh Margolin, is an example of a long-overdue actor getting her chance in the spotlight.

The film stars 93-year-old Oscar nominee June Squibb as the titular character. The story follows Thelma as she is duped by a phone scammer pretending to be her grandson. To take back what’s hers, Thelma Post travels across the city of Los Angeles. Thelma teams up with her old friend Ben (the late Richard Roundtree) and avoids her family (Clark GreggParker Posey, and Fred Hechinger) in hot pursuit. What follows is a funny, sincere, and incredibly sweet action-adventure film. Its success stems from one very important element: its lead performance.

June Squibb and Richard Roundtree in Thelma. Image courtesy of Sundance/Magnolia Pictures.
June Squibb and Richard Roundtree in Thelma. Image courtesy of Sundance/Magnolia Pictures.

June Squibb gets to showcase her talents

Squibb has been acting in the industry for quite some time, mostly in supporting roles. While always working, she never had a “big break” until Nebraska in 2014. That film showcased two very important elements for Squibb as a performer. Firstly, it showed real comedic chops that helped her stand out amongst an ensemble that included Bob Odenkirk. Nebraska proved beneficial for Squibb, allowing her to be a scene stealer. That allowed her to remain in the spotlight, starring in numerous other supporting roles. Simultaneously and second, it showed audiences that she was more than capable of leading her own feature.

In ThelmaSquibb exudes a performance that balances Thelma’s immense heart and love for her family and Squibb’s ability to commit to the action. That does not mean the film throws her into implausible action-packed scenarios. Instead, it makes her capable for the story’s more tense and action-heavy moments. The success of the performance resides in the confidence the character of Thelma has. 

No matter the situation, Squibb showcases Thelma’s relentless determination. Throughout the film, Thelma is consistently underestimated by others. No one deems her as capable, whether it be her family, friends, or potential enemies. That is due to her age and, in some cases, ailing health. Watching Thelma prove others wrong proves to be incredibly satisfying. This also includes her relationship with her family, who worry about every choice she makes. Besides her family, it includes other supporting characters with different intentions.

The Screenplay has its Priorities in Order

June Squibb’s dynamite lead performance keeps the attention on her front and center. The character needs a well-rounded supporting cast to make a performance that engaging. No matter the role, every supporting character is part of Thelma’s journey. That is largely thanks to the screenplay, written by director Josh Margolin. The script wisely fleshes out these supporting characters, giving them their own moments with Thelma. Some of those moments deliver emotional, relatable, and overall engaging content. This stems from Margolin’s personal connection to the material.

Events loosely inspire the story of Thelma with Margolin’s real grandmother. Being inspired by real events helps ground the story in a feasible reality and gives the Thelma character a chance to show off a sparkling personality. She is an instantly likable character that audiences care about. This includes the quiet moments, particularly with her grandson Danny (Hechinger) or Ben (Roundtree). There’s an absolute emotional honesty within those sequences. Set against an action backdrop, you can tell the supporting characters deeply love Thelma. You can easily see that comes from Margolin’s deep love and respect he has for his grandmother. This respect perfectly encapsulates Margolin’s goals in telling this story via a film. 

The supporting cast all share one important commonality. Each character cares deeply for Thelma’s safety. They all show it differently, varying from worrying family members to a loyal, possible love interest. Thelma’s effect on those around simultaneously affects the audience. Viewers grow to care so much about her journey in an incredibly endearing way. Her warmth also helps in making her an unlikely action hero. As the film progresses, viewers uncover just how much she can do. Thelma can continuously hold her own in a world that underestimates her. With this movie, Squibb is a viable and entertaining action star.

Thelma was easily my favorite film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is great for a few reasons. The first resides in Margolin’s deep love for the Thelma character. As Margolin said in the virtual Q&A, he wanted to make a film that honored his grandmother. While based on a real event, Margolin crafted an action-filled adventure story with a character you fall in love with. The film thrives on a tonal balance of action with a real emotional center. Thelma takes audiences on a rousing adventure over a brief 97-minute running time. Such a combination creates a well-balanced theatrical experience. Thelma has it all, which makes the finished product incredibly rewarding.

Thelma will be in theaters at a later date, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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