June Squibb has a blast as an elderly vigilante in the likable but uneven comedy Thelma

click to enlarge June Squibb has a blast as an elderly vigilante in the likable but uneven comedy Thelma
Roundtree and Squibb are a hoot in Thelma.

If two movies can constitute a trend, then online scammers are the new go-to villains for revenge thrillers. Just a few months after Jason Statham took out a sophisticated network of hackers and phishers in The Beekeeper, a very different sort of vigilante seeks her own vengeance against a scammer in the charming, if scattered, comedy Thelma. The difference is that June Squibb's title character is no muscle-bound former covert operative — she's a 93-year-old grandma with more determination than stamina, one who can be thwarted by obstacles like staircases and high shelves.

That doesn't stop Thelma from going after what's been taken from her, despite the objections of her well-meaning family. Two years after the death of her husband, Thelma lives a quiet life alone, still in remarkable shape for her age, even if she relies on her slacker grandson Daniel (Fred Hechinger) to help her with basic online tasks.

Thelma's love for her grandson is what gets her in trouble, when she gets a call from someone who sounds like Daniel, claiming that he's in jail following a car accident and in immediate need of bail money. Thelma puts together $10,000 in cash and sends it to a post office box before discovering that Daniel is perfectly fine, fast asleep at home after a late night out.

For Thelma's daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and her husband, Alan (Clark Gregg), the incident is an indication that Thelma might no longer be fit to take care of herself. After the police fail to offer any help, Thelma's family wants to let the incident go, relieved that no one was hurt or arrested. But Thelma — fueled by her viewing of a Mission: Impossible movie with Daniel on her old tube TV — decides to take matters into her own hands.

Writer/director Josh Margolin makes numerous references to Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible, and he has fun applying action-movie conventions to the struggles of the elderly, without ever turning Thelma or her fellow senior citizens into punchlines. When Thelma gets ready to track down the scammers, the equipment she assembles during a suiting-up montage includes a hearing aid, a water bottle, orthopedic shoes and an electronic lifeline wristband.

That lifeline becomes a key plot point, as a way for Thelma's family to monitor her location after she goes rogue, and she eventually dramatically tosses it away — like a spy discovering a secret tracking device. For her mission, she recruits fellow retiree Ben (Richard Roundtree), who's perfectly happy in an assisted living facility but isn't willing to just send Thelma off with his borrowed electric scooter to confront potentially dangerous criminals on her own.

Thelma is at its most entertaining as a sort of buddy-cop movie between Squibb and the late Roundtree, in his final role. Thelma and Ben find ingenious ways to carry out their mission, working around their limitations and even using some of those limitations to their advantage. They repurpose their smartphones' function of connecting directly to digital hearing aids to turn those medical aids into a clandestine communication apparatus. Unable to drive, they take Ben's two-seat scooter across town to the shipping store that houses the scammer's P.O. box, hoping to stake it out and catch the crooks.

Squibb makes the most of her first lead role in a career that stretches back multiple decades (including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Alexander Payne's Nebraska). She makes Thelma likably cantankerous, giving her a sense of melancholy along with her grit and stubbornness. After an amusing sequence of futile phone calls, she tells Daniel, "All my friends are dead," with a cheerful matter-of-factness that can't quite hide the undertone of despair. She may be getting closer to the end of her life, but she's not ready to stop living, and Margolin presents her as an inspirational figure without getting treacly.

Roundtree is just as good in a more subdued role, and he has great chemistry with Squibb, representing a calmer but no less indomitable approach to aging. If Thelma were just about the two of them on a quest for justice, it would be one of the most entertaining movies of the year, even if Margolin's portrayal of telephone scammers is woefully unrealistic for the sake of dramatic expediency.

But unfortunately the movie devotes far too much attention to Daniel's parallel quest for self-actualization, an aimless young man trying to find his purpose in life. Nearly every scene away from Thelma herself is an irritating slog, especially with Gail and Alan infantilizing their son in the same overbearing, condescending way they treat Thelma. Posey and Gregg are stuck with thankless roles as characters who never feel like real people, especially in contrast to the vibrant, complex Thelma and Ben.

Those scenes can only drag Thelma down so far, though, and it's still mostly a hoot, with Squibb clearly relishing her belated moment in the spotlight. She's 94 and already has another lead role lined up, proving that it's never too late for genuine talent to be properly recognized. ♦

Two and a Half Stars Thelma
Rated PG-13
Directed by Josh Margolin
Starring June Squibb, Richard Roundtree, Fred Hechinger

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