Josh Margolis wrote, directed, and edited Thelma, which premiered at Sundance this week based on a real experience his grandmother had with a phone scammer and a blending of his love for action films. The story is a familiar one that we all can connect with if we have an aging family member with technology issues or those middle-aged parents who helicopter you to the young slacker who hasn’t figured out life yet in their mid-20s.
Much like Love Me, the film takes a comedic approach to challenging issues, a real hallmark of post-COVID cinema that seems to embrace this sense of trauma we collectively had and understand some universal concepts of just human experience.
But where this film knocks it out of the park is in the casting. June Squibb, one of the greatest character actors (Nebraska), has her first starring role, and the now late Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and Fred Hechinger (The White Lotus) as the grandson. Their chemistry makes everything her character does on screen believable. And while this is absolutely Squibb’s magnum opus, as Roundtree’s final performance, the gravitas of what he says about aging, sinks in on a deeper level. Older Roundtree was working on a different level than his heyday of the 1970s.
Where I wish the film had been cast differently is with Parker Posey, Gregg Clark, and Malcolm McDowell. Perhaps the nods to their careers feel less of a love story for great actors and more of an absurd slapstick joke of middle age It feels like the director didn’t trust the audience to get the grandson and grandmother bond in the “A” plot. But in the efforts of self-awareness, being as I am middle-aged currently the story may just hit a little too close to home on how absurd being middle-aged is. They have some great lines but almost feels like it pulls focus away from our beloved Thelma who is the heart of the story.
But where the film also really plays with language is in the sound design. As Thelma Post (Squibb) takes us into her world, part of that experience is hearing aids which are used with the new phone Bluetooth experience that due to being clever, Post uses uniquely. In at least two scenes she uses her hearing aids as spy tools but what makes it more than a funny gag is the audio meant to bring us into the scene. Nathan Ruyle is the sound designer and also runs the independent post-production sound company This is Sound Design, located in Burbank, California. His work bringing us into a partially deaf character’s world in this film is deeply authentic and elevates the film.
While the film has heart and connects most audience members to the importance and universal reality of aging, there are also some deeply Southern Californian jokes that hit me. Margolis committed a whole bit and callback to the former glory days of Souplantation, which was my absolute favorite former Southern California haunt with a lot of my family. While those jokes land well and add to the absurdity of the overall plot, the film works greatest when we are with Squibb and her character arc.
Thelma is the debut feature from Zoë Worth and Chris Kaye’s new production company, Bandwagon, which is dedicated to incubating original film and television projects in a collaborative environment – from inception to production and beyond.
– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)
2024 Sundance Film Festival; Josh Margolis; Thelma