In ‘Thelma,’ a Jewish Grandma Is an Action Hero

This movie answers the question: What would happen if your Bubbe was given a gun and told that her eldest grandson is in trouble?

Have you ever wondered what would happen if your Bubbe was given a gun and told that her eldest grandson is in trouble? It would probably look something like the upcoming comedy “Thelma.”

When 93-year-old Thelma Post is scammed over the phone, she goes on a mission to get her money back no matter the risk.

About ten minutes into watching this movie, I decided this was a Jewish family. I could tell Thelma knew her way around a mahjong game and didn’t play when it came to the High Holidays. She felt like the women in my life who raised me: stubborn, opinionated and unmistakably Jewish.

Throughout the film, I was delighted by every detail that revealed I wasn’t projecting; this family was definitely part of the tribe. Judaism wasn’t necessarily important to the storyline, but those glimpses let audiences into this family’s world and helped further define dynamics. The culture was woven into the details: the perfect combination of sincerity and humor, fear disguised as sarcasm and love hidden behind eye rolls. So many small moments in the movie made me feel it was as though I was visiting home.

Real events inspired writer and director Josh Margolin for his debut feature film. After his actual grandmother was scammed, Margolin began imagining what would happen if his feisty, quick-witted Bubbe sought revenge. This idea developed into an original heartwarming film that takes a nuanced look at aging. “I wanted to treat her like the star of her own action movie — to celebrate her spirit and tenacity, and literalize her fight for what’s left of her autonomy,” Margolin said to Sundance. “I’ve always loved action movies — and my grandma — combining the two just made sense to me.”

In “Thelma,” Academy Award nominee June Squibb stars in her first leading role as Thelma Post, a spitfire matriarch adjusting to life alone in the years following her husband’s passing. Her grandson Danny keeps her company by driving her to appointments and teaching her how to use the computer. The two have grown close while he struggles to enter adulthood.

When Thelma receives a call from someone she believes to be her grandson, saying that he has been in a terrible accident and needs $10,000 wired to him, she doesn’t think twice about helping. After realizing it was a common scam, Thelma is adamant about getting her money back, undeterred by the pleas from her family.

Danny, along with Thelma’s daughter Gail and son-in-law Alan are simply happy she is safe. It’s not so simple for Thelma — it’s the principle that keeps her angry. If you’re going to piss off a Jewish woman, just know that she won’t forget it. Thelma throws caution to the wind and embarks on a glorious revenge journey to get her money back. After all, if she’s going to die anyway, she might as well have one last adventure.

Thelma reunites with an old friend, Ben, played by Richard Roundtree in his final performance, initially only for his motorized scooter, but eventually she convinces him to join her on her quest. Ben is living in an elder care facility which Thelma looks down upon despite Ben’s insistence that the companionship is nice and the classes are interesting. The chemistry between the two was delightful to watch, showing that good writing can defy what we expect an audience to want. With only platonic and familial love as anchors, two nonagenarians don’t just hold audiences’ attention — they captivate.

Fred Hechinger is charming as Danny, a boy not quite ready to be a man. Parker Posey and Clark Gregg play Danny’s fretting parents, Gail and Alan. When Thelma disappears, their anxious and overbearing attention shifts from Danny to Thelma, which plays silly but is one of the film’s prominent themes. The role reversal between parents and children as they age is both the natural way of life and a horrible loss of autonomy.

Near the film’s end, my assumptions were finally confirmed, when Thelma asks her grandson if his girlfriend can be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Danny responds by saying he hasn’t had the burial conversation yet and Thelma offers him extra plots in New York if he wants them. Alone in the theater, I laughed while tears ran down my cheeks. Not only was this a near-verbatim conversation I’ve had with my own grandmothers, but it was a beautiful depiction of the love that outlasts life. Mortality isn’t Thelma’s concern; she’s worried she won’t be able to help her grandson after she’s gone.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

All of the crucial elements required of a good action movie are included in this film: a high-speed chase, explosions and even a hacking sequence (Thelma logging into her online bank account). Squibb amazingly performed the majority of her stunts, including a chase scene on a motorized scooter. According to the cast, the delight on Thelma’s face might just actually be June’s. She is not Tom Cruise — she’s better.

The comedic juxtaposition between high-stakes action and the elderly protagonist could easily become over the top, but this isn’t the case. Squibb’s performance keeps the world grounded and sincere without sacrificing laughs. The suspense is only heightened when a simple fall could be as detrimental as an explosion. Getting out of a chair is as much of a danger to Thelma as a gun-wielding conman, and both scenarios will have viewers holding their breath. The film, different from the “Jason Bourne”-esque experience, sheds light on issues people face while aging including the quiet grief, frustrations and feelings of indignity or infantilization. The film empathetically portrays these issues while deftly balancing a lighthearted atmosphere.

“Thelma” is a joyous reminder that life is short, so we must make art, laugh a lot and hug our mishpacha tight.

“Thelma” was a fan favorite at the Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Magnolia Pictures. The film will have a theatrical release on June 21st.

Kylie Bolter

Kylie Bolter (she/her) is a writer based out of Chicago. She graduated from University of Iowa in 2021 with a major in English/Creative Writing and a minor in cinema.

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