'Thelma': Grandma wants scammers to feel her wrath in warm and witty action movie

At 94, screen veteran June Squibb gets her first leading role and carries the movie with style.

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In "Thelma," the title character (June Squibb) enlists a widowed friend (Richard Roundtree) to help her find the scammers who bilked her out of $10,000.

In “Thelma,” the title character (June Squibb) enlists a widowed friend (Richard Roundtree) to help her find the scammers who bilked her out of $10,000.

Magnolia Pictures

Of all the criminal phishers out there who employ sophisticated and devious means to separate innocent victims from their money, none is more despicable than the scammers who target the elderly, whether it’s via email or text or AI-enhanced phone call. Writer-director Josh Margolin’s grandmother Thelma nearly fell for a senior-targeted scam, an incident that serves as the inspiration for “Thelma,” a warm and witty comedy starring the invaluable character actress June Squibb (“About Schmidt,” “Nebraska,” “Inside Out 2”), who gets her first leading role at the age of 94 and delivers a knockout of a performance.

This is a pure comfort-viewing experience, filled with authentic characters who talk the way real people talk, even when the situations stretch credulity. Every production design detail in “Thelma” feels spot-on; when the camera moves through the title character’s home and lingers on the furniture and the knick-knacks and the photographs, you instantly know that an older person lives there. (That’s not a knock on “Grandma Houses,” not at all. There’s just a certain décor, a certain vibe, that we all would recognize.)

Squibb’s Thelma is a widow who lives alone and refuses to even consider the idea she’s losing her independence, though it takes her a long time to move from Point A to Point B, and she’s practically deaf without her hearing aids, and she’d be hopeless on the computer without the help of her goofy but good-hearted slacker grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger, playing a character no so different from the socially awkward son he portrayed on Season 1 of “The White Lotus”).

'Thelma'

Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Josh Margolin. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for strong language). Opens Thursday in local theaters.

One afternoon, Thelma gets a call from a distraught Danny, telling her he’s in jail with a broken nose after he hit a pregnant woman while driving. Danny tells Thelma she’s going to get a call from a defense attorney and sure enough, the phone buzzes, and the attorney tells Thelma she needs to send him $10,000. In cash. To a post office box.

Uh-oh. Thelma tries to reach her daughter Gail (Parker Posey) and her son-in-law Alan (Clark Gregg), but they’re both busy at their respective jobs and they don’t see the calls, so Thelma takes a cab to the post office and mails the 10 grand. A few hours later, when Danny finally wakes up after a night of partying — in his own bed, not in jail, no broken nose, no accident — the reality sinks in. Thelma has been scammed. (Hey, wasn’t this the launching point of the plot of “The Beekeeper”?)

The police say there’s not much that can be done, and Thelma’s family tell her it’s a lesson learned but at least nobody was hurt, but Thelma is having none of that. She’s going to track down these scammers and get her money back. It’s not just about the money. It’s about proving Thelma isn’t “losing it.”

This is when “Thelma” switches into low-key caper mode, with Thelma (perhaps inspired by a recent viewing of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” with her grandson) determined to exact her revenge and retrieve her cash. With an infectious, jazzy score by Nick Chuba that has echoes of David Holmes’ work on the Soderbergh “Oceans” movies helping to set the tone, Thelma first tries to enlist the help of some old friends she hasn’t seen for some time — but in a morbid but funny twist on the “round up the gang” trope, she learns they’re all dead.

Only then does Thelma reluctantly turn to her late husband’s old friend, a widower named Ben (the late Richard Roundtree in his final film role), who has a tendency to grate on her nerves with his upbeat personality and his chattering about how much he enjoys life in an assisted living facility. Ben winds up teaming up with Thelma, though neither of them is initially thrilled with the idea.

With Thelma’s family worried that she’s had an episode of Transient Global Amnesia, Thelma and Ben run into some troublesome obstacles as their quest veers close to becoming a dangerous folly. Even when “Thelma” indulges in broad comedy, e.g., a motorized scooter chase through the facility, what could be cringey material is handled deftly. This is an action movie, starring a mismatched pair of seniors who make the unwise decision to travel across Los Angeles to track down those scammers. (And hey, Richard Roundtree has some experience playing a sleuth who works the streets.)

The hijinks occasionally take a back seat to some serious business, as when Ben gently but firmly tells Thelma they have to accept the fact they’re “diminished” and “not what we were.” It’s a beautifully played scene, with old pros Squibb and Roundtree turning in captivating and elegantly grounded performances. “Thelma” pushes the limits of plausibility in some late developments, but by that point we’ve been won over, and we’re hoping Thelma and Ben will take down those dastardly scammers.

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