THELMA Gives 94-Year-Old June Squibb the Role of a Lifetime

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb appear in Thelma by Josh Margolin | photo by David Bolen.

After a long, relatively fruitful career on the stage, a then little-known actress, June Squibb made her feature-film debut at the tender age of 61 in Woody Allen’s 1990 comedy-fantasy, Alice. Since then, Squibb has worked steadily as a supporting player, most notably in Alexander Payne’s Academy Award-nominated 2013 drama, Nebraska. Despite well-earned accolades, Squibb, however, had to wait another decade for another role with a similar depth or substance to her Oscar-nominated turn. That role as the titular character in writer-director Josh Margolin’s feature-length debut, Thelma, may just be her most effortlessly engaging, empathetic onscreen turn yet.
The unlikeliest of unlikely action heroes bar none, Squibb’s title character, a nonagenarian living contentedly on her own after seventy years of marriage and two years as a widow, finds herself on the wrong end of a phone scam. Called in the middle of the day by a young man pretending to be her grandson, Danny (Fred Hechinger, who also co-produced), Thelma listens intently as the imposter claims he’s been imprisoned for a car accident. The imposter also claims he needs $10K in bail money and his lawyer will call soon with details. Thelma rushes into what passes for action, drawing from her savings for the faux-bail money, and mailing it off a post-office box in a nearby town.
Minutes later, Thelma discovers Danny hasn’t been imprisoned for a non-crime, she’s been scammed, and she’s suddenly out $10K. Considering it a low-value, minor crime not worth investigating, the police are no help. Thelma’s daughter, Gail (Parker Posey), and Alan (Clark Gregg), Gail’s husband and Danny’s father, also dismiss the incident, the result of Thelma’s naïveté, her disconnection from the ever-shifting modern world, and tech ignorance, not to mention Thelma’s mental acuity (or lack thereof). Gail and Alan also consider Thelma’s unfortunate experience as a real-world lesson or example of elderly exploitation by scammers. They offer Thelma affection mixed with more than a hint of condescension, an attitude they unconsciously deploy around Danny, a directionless, unconfident twenty-something, as well.

Undaunted, unfazed, and more importantly, unwilling to accept inaction as her only alternative, Thelma decides to track down the scammers herself. Cleverly nodding to one of action cinema’s high points (e.g., anything with Tom Cruise), Margolin’s indefatigable, indomitable, unstoppable Thelma can’t help but see something of herself in Cruise’s signature rule, Ethan Hunt, the super-spy whose life-or-death missions border on the improbable, but never the impossible. And thus a 93-going-on-94-year-old action hero is born, taking full control over whatever’s left of her future.

Later, when she’s forced to borrow her friend Ben’s (a heartbreaking Richard Roundtree in his final performance) mobility scooter with Ben in tow, she becomes one-half of an elderly dynamic duo (sans capes and cowls). Along the way to the scammers’ HQ, they encounter an atypical set of obstacles, some more comical than others, including, but not limited to their physical limitations, Gail and Alan’s concerned pursuit, and deciding what to do when they come across the scammers in the real world.
Inspired by his close relationship with his grandmother (she appears briefly in the end credits via video footage), Margolin deftly taps into commonly held perceptions about aging and how society, including well-meaning children of elderly parents, mistreats, misjudges, and outright dismisses both their concerns and more importantly, their abilities, diminished but far from fully or truly, to contribute meaningfully to those around them. Those misperceptions fuel both Thelma the film and Thelma the character, using an expertly calibrated mix of humor, pathos, and yes, even action tropes to thoughtfully subvert them.
Thelma opens theatrically on Friday, June 21st.  

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