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‘Thelma’ advises ‘Don’t mess with seniors!’

“Thelma” (2024). Cast: June Squibb, Richard Roundtree, Fred Hechinger, Parker Posey, Clark Gregg, Malcolm McDowell, Aidan Fiske, Bunny Levine, Nicole Byer, Quinn Beswick, Chase Kim, David Giuliani, Ruben Rabasa, Sheila Korsi, Coral Peña, Ivy Jones, Annie Korzen, Hilda Boulware. Director: Josh Margolin. Screenplay: Josh Margolin. Web site. Trailer.

According to playwright David Mamet, “Age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.” The kind of wisdom that comes from life experience can be tapped and put to use in many ways, particularly when others try to pull the wool over the eyes of those who’ve been around for a while and have had ample opportunity to stockpile such seasoned and shrewd sagacity. And, when that aptitude is combined with the personal confidence necessary to make a difference in situations where justice is clearly called for, the wrongdoers should take heed. Such is the case in the fact-based tale of a senior scammed by would-be crooks in the hilariously outrageous new comedy-drama-action thriller, “Thelma.”

Many criminals assume that the elderly are easy targets for victimization. They believe that seniors are overly trusting and easily confused, especially when it comes to schemes that employ modern technology and underhanded measures. And, regrettably, in some cases, that’s all too true. However, not everyone is so vulnerable. Just ask 93-year-old Thelma Post (June Squibb).

Thelma is a spry but sometimes-gullible widowed retiree who still manages to live independently in her Los Angeles condo. She has a number of health conditions, but most of them appear to be reasonably under control. She also experiences her share of “senior moments,” such as “recognizing” people she thinks she knows, a practice that she gets right only about half of the time. All things considered, though, Thelma seems to do well enough on her own, even though some of her family members are concerned that she may not be able to continue living unassisted for much longer.

Of course, those family members live in glass houses of their own and should probably be careful about hurling stones. Thelma spends most of her time with her grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger), a kindly but “unfocused” twentysomething who acts as a sort of an impromptu on-demand caretaker, a role he can readily fulfill given that he’s unemployed (and apparently incapable of holding down a job or attending school). Then there’s Thelma’s daughter, Gail (Parker Posey), a high-strung, emotionally charged career woman who becomes easily distracted, stunningly scattered and manically driven whenever plans don’t unfold according to script. Gail’s husband, Alan (Clark Gregg), tries to keep matters on an even keel, but, when Daniel and Gail go off the rails, sometimes it’s even too much for someone as supposedly level-headed as him to hold everything together. And, if anything goes awry in Thelma’s life, her relatives frequently go into meltdown mode, inflaming the situation to an even greater degree (and, ironically, raising their concerns that she should no longer be living on her own). In fact, when circumstances start to get out of hand, it’s often up to Thelma to restore order before they go further amiss.

Because of this apparently well-worn pattern, Thelma doesn’t always tell her family everything that’s going on with her, knowing what will result from it if she does. It’s only when conditions get particularly dire that she says something. And that’s what happens when Thelma receives a panic-stricken phone call supposedly from Daniel (or at least from someone who sounds remarkably like him). He claims he’s been in an accident and desperately needs $10,000 in cash to bail him out. Being the loving, caring grandmother that she is, Thelma naturally comes to his rescue, grabbing money from the many secret hiding places all over her home, hastily putting it in an envelope and mailing it to a post office box address that “Daniel” provided her.

Ninety-three-year-old Thelma Post (June Squibb, left) dotes on her twentysomething grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger, right), who serves as an impromptu caretaker for her, as seen in the hilarious, fact-based comedy-drama-action thriller, “Thelma,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

However, not long thereafter, when Thelma finds out that her grandson is fine, she and the family realize she’s been the victim of a phone-based phishing scam. Thelma is both embarrassed and outraged. She wonders how she could have fallen for such a scheme, but she’s also determined to get the money back. She contacts the police, but the investigating officer, Detective Morgan (Chase Kim), informs her that the money is probably gone for good. But that’s a response Thelma is unwilling to accept.

Without saying a word to her family, Thelma concocts a plan to track down the missing funds. She visits her old friend, Ben (Richard Roundtree), who lives at a nearby senior residence, seeking to enlist his support and to “borrow” his electric scooter. Ben tries to dissuade her by pointing out the potential dangers involved, especially since the post office box she seeks to stake out is quite far away. But, given Thelma’s steely determination, she sets off on her odyssey across Los Angeles with Ben reluctantly in tow.

As the duo’s journey unfolds, they have an array of wild and wacky experiences along the way, such as a stop at the home of their aged but out-of-touch mutual friend Mona (Bunny Levine) to surreptitiously borrow her gun. That unexpected revelation raises yet another red flag for Ben, but it’s something that plucky Thelma takes in stride. That becomes apparent when Ben asks Thelma if she even knows how to use a gun, to which she blithely replies, “How hard can it be?”

Meanwhile, the family tries to track down Thelma when she goes missing. Daniel, who drove her to the senior residence, becomes worried when she fails to show up for her ride back home, so he contacts Gail and Alan for help, aided by a pair of nursing home employees (Nicole Byer, Quinn Beswick). But the usual mayhem that ensues when issues like this come up appears once again, leaving everybody in the dark. And, even when they think they’ve found Thelma, their efforts go for naught as the sly old lady manages to outwit them and keep them off her trail.

As day turns to night, Thelma and Ben continue their trek, but conditions grow progressively more ominous as they enter unfamiliar and somewhat dubious turf. Ben is ready to throw in the towel, but Thelma refuses to give up. She believes she can succeed in her quest, no matter how problematic it becomes and regardless of whatever obstacles are strewn across her path. But is this determination realistic or wishful thinking? That remains to be seen, but, considering how far she’s already come, it would be unwise to count her out just yet.

When 93-year-old Thelma Post (June Squibb, right) falls victim to a phishing scam that robs her of $10,000, she joins forces with her old friend, Ben (Richard Roundtree, left), to get the money back in the new, fact-based comedy-drama-action thriller, “Thelma,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Far too often, the elderly are treated as frail, vulnerable and easily coopted. But such blanket sentiments are hardly fair, especially since not all individuals are cut from the same cloth, including seniors. How they conduct themselves and view their world is as varied as what one finds in any age group. In fact, based on the David Mamet observation noted above, mature adults often have a distinct advantage over their younger counterparts, based on their vast lifetimes of experience.

How seniors approach life, as with those at any age, depends on their beliefs, for these outlooks shape the existence they experience, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that makes this outcome possible. It’s unclear how many elders have heard of this school of thought, but, given how some of them have successfully managed to live fulfilling lives in their golden years and remain vital through the process, it’s obvious that they’ve learned how to make use of this philosophy’s principles to their advantage. And that can be particularly useful for those who are confronted with situations like what Thelma faces.

Despite having initially been swindled out of her money and some occasional senior moments, Thelma is basically quite sharp for her age, and she’s willing to relentlessly wield her mental acuity and street wisdom when needed. She’s unafraid to move forward courageously, unwilling to let circumstances stop her that might otherwise hinder the actions of others, especially those who are easily intimidated, regardless of age. She believes she can achieve her goal, and she’s determined not to let anything get in her way. We should all be so brave.

Of course, if we’re each responsible for the reality we create for ourselves, some might wonder why Thelma would draw circumstances like these into her world. That’s a good question, and only she can answer that for herself. However, when we consider the “concern” that others like her family members have for her well-being and independence, perhaps she needed to attract a situation like this to prove to them that she’s still perfectly capable of handling and resolving her own affairs. Itʼs tantamount to one of those “I’ll show them!” moments, particularly for someone eager to remain autonomous.

In addition, Thelma’s manifestation of this challenge could be a way of setting an example for others, most notably her family. When faced with a crisis, these younger and supposedly more savvy individuals tend to collapse under the weight of these issues, largely incapable of responding to the circumstances. Yet, at the same time, they’re also the ones who decry Thelma’s growing inability to continue functioning independently. (Indeed, there are those glass houses, again.) It’s as if they’re projecting their own insecurity-based beliefs onto Thelma. Well, maybe they can’t handle what they’re facing, but Thelma certainly can, and her actions could thus be a way of showing them that it’s possible to address these situations without falling apart. Take a lesson, folks.

When their elderly relative goes missing, a panic-stricken family seeks to track her down, including her daughter, Gail (Parker Posey, left), her grandson, Daniel (Fred Hechinger, center), and her son-in-law, Alan (Clark Gregg, right), in writer-director Josh Margolin’s debut feature, “Thelma,” a hilarious, outrageous comedy-drama-action thriller now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This is not to suggest that Thelma doesn’t need help. Like most of us, she does, especially in a dicey situation like this. And that’s why she seeks assistance when needed, such as calling on Ben for help. She’s not afraid to admit that she needs the aid, either; contrary to popular belief, that’s a sign of strength, not weakness, when circumstances like this arise. Thelma is also discerning enough in her beliefs to know where to turn in these instances. Note how she looks for assistance from Ben – someone she can count on – rather than her family (except, occasionally, Daniel) given their inherent shortcomings. Wise lady, to be sure.

There’s a definite sense of realism feeding into these beliefs. Being 93, Thelma knows that she’s not as capable of doing all the things she did when she was younger, and her realistic appreciation of this is a driving force in helping her understand her limitations in terms of when they can be met or exceeded and when they’re beyond what she can still do. That’s another form of the wisdom that comes with age, and she draws upon it to temper her beliefs, preventing her from pursuing fruitless (and potentially hazardous) wishful thinking. It’s a principle we should all apply in our lives, but it’s especially true for those who need to keep themselves from making foolish mistakes out of pride or a loss of perspective.

At a time of life when it’s often assumed that we wish to take things easier, there are those of us who believe firmly that we can remain independent and still take care of ourselves, and Thelma is a prime example of this. She wants it known that it’s bad form to mess with seniors, especially those who continue to possess the determination to retain control over their lives and destinies. It’s the antithesis of the rampant victimhood and helplessness that we often see individuals embrace these days, and, in Thelma’s case, it comes at a time when she feels she needs it most.

So why is Thelma’s independence so important to her? In a heartfelt moment, she notes that she lived at home with her parents until her early 20s, when she got married. She then lived with her husband until his passing, when she was 91. It was at that point when she was essentially on her own for the first time in her life, and she glows about how much she has enjoyed it, something she’s not ready to give up after only two years. That’s understandable, particularly when we get a sense of what it’s like to grow into our own personal power. And, for someone whose life is nearing its end, having a measure of mastery over that personal power is important in light of how much one has had to give up in reaching that point. It likely won’t be long before that last-remaining degree of control will become lost for good, so having the opportunity to continue savoring its satisfaction for as long as possible becomes a high priority. After all, as the inherently creative and powerful beings that we are, it’s what truly makes life worth living in the end.

Seniors Thelma (June Squibb, right) and Ben (Richard Roundtree, left) prove that it doesn’t pay to mess with the elderly when they seek revenge for a phishing scam, as seen in the sidesplitting new fact-based comedy-drama-action thriller, “Thelma,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Mixing comedy and drama is rarely easy, but successfully doing so in the context of an action thriller is quite an accomplishment, one brilliantly pulled off in writer-director Josh Margolin’s debut feature. The film represents an impressive premiere thanks to its superbly penned, well-balanced, evenly paced script relating the experiences of his own 103-year-old grandmother (who’s still alive and kicking and whose real-life home was used as one of the film’s principal movie sets). This uproarious farce features humor that’s clearly outlandish but never implausible or over the top. But there’s more to this offering than laughs – the sight of capable, underestimated elderly folks taking charge over their lives (and, in the case of this picture, even performing their own stunts!) is truly inspiring. This is backed by a potent, poignant (though never preachy) underlying look at what it’s like to grow old and the losses that come with it, a bittersweet meditation on the inevitable changes that emerge with age and how all too quickly they arrive, material that’s deftly and often philosophically interwoven with the comedy. The picture is also a triumph for 94-year-old Squibb in her career’s first-ever lead role, one worthy of Oscar contention, effectively capturing her diverse talents, qualities that have been bottled up for far too long. In addition, the film is a fine showcase for Roundtree in his final feature film performance, one in which we see him in a different light from many of his previous roles and in which he’s perfectly matched with his cunning co-star. My only issue with the picture is with the portrayal of Thelma’s family, in which the development of its three principals never comes off quite right, seemingly reaching for something that doesn’t gel properly, an aspect of the narrative that clearly could have used some further refinement. Otherwise, though, “Thelma” (or “Thelmaf” as it was once known in an alternate version of the title) is one of the funniest, best produced releases that I’ve seen in quite some time. So hop on your scooter and get your behind to your nearest theater to see this one – or else.

Itʼs often been said that “Just because there’s snow on the roof, it doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the chimney.” Thelma and Ben (and a number of their spry cohorts) prove that, too, in this delightfully engaging tale. But there’s no need for us to think of this only as a work of fiction for the big screen. Indeed, as noted above, this is a story based on the experience of the director’s real-life grandmother. So why should any of us think of scenarios like this as being outside the realm of possibility? We need to give seniors more credit than we typically do, and we should bear that in mind, considering that one day we’ll be in their shoes ourselves. Would we want to be thought of as helpless and unable to function on our own? I think not. I know I wouldn’t, and I certainly intend not to be. Maybe that’s advice we should all take to heart – and make the most of whatever time we have left. After all, it will never come again, and that’s one regret none of us should want to endure.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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