Difficult to imagine a film more set up to descend into the depths of quirky cuteness than Thelma. An older grandmother sets out on an ill planned path of revenge, targeting those who scammed her by playing on her sympathies, a plot set up with promise of epic adventure but maybe deep disappointment. It could be a set up either for a truly out of control exploitation film, or the sort of goofy feel good film that too often leaves me more frustrated than amused. When it began, I was sure, certain even, that this was what we were getting: corn ball shlock. Yes, it is cute to see older folks acting out, but how long can we maintain a narrative floating almost entirely on the cuteness of one or more characters. Thelma does not stay there though, it slowly transforms into something connected to but distinct from it’s genesis. As the film increases its stakes and the complexity of its characters, it somehow also transforms the humor. By the time we understand the movie is not romanticizing its older characters but showing us both their triumphs AND their flaws, the humor has evolved as well. Gone are the more cloying elements and instead there is a sharper wit and punchier jokes. It may seem like faint praise to claim a film transcends its own premise, but that is in my evaluation exactly what Thelma does. It seems at first to be the sort of shallow quirk fest that many have grown weary of, but as it expands and deepens its narrative, it slowly becomes a hilarious film whose triumphs are entirely earned.

One of the reasons Thelma works is the performance of June Squibb. It would not be dismissive to suggest Squibb has a type, and is often cast in roles where she can be the cute older lady. In this film she takes what seems like a familiar space for her and expands it just enough to be interesting. Thelma has moments where she is sassy or befuddled that feel like what we have seen from Squibb in the past. However, the script gives Thelma opportunities to show us her fears, her insecurities, her dignity, and in the end a character that is not a one note punch line but a fully realized character. Some of that is made real through her chemistry with Richard Roundtree who is incredibly endearing as Ben, but also finds enough reality to feel grounded. Ben is the perfect companion and foil to Thelma’s search for independence. However, the other key is Fred Hechinger as Daniel. Daniel is somehow incredibly sweet and incredibly patronizing. He feels like the best thing he can do is treat his grandmother like a large child, and that attitude is reinforced by his own parents. As his relationship with Thelma but also with his parents brought to life by Parker Posey and Clark Gregg, allows Daniel to also become more than a walking joke he starts to understand what mutual respect looks like.  The dynamics between these characters are not often brought out with obvious exposition, but the script allows for dynamic interactions that are not only funny, but give the texture we need to invest in these individuals.

The other aspect of the secret sauce of Thelma is the way it takes seriously the older characters personhood and vulnerability. Thelma and Ben are not children. They have lived long, interesting lives, and they are still fully adults. However, they do now have some limitations and, in the wrong circumstances, those limitations can in fact be very dangerous. These are not ideas in conflict, and taking them seriously within a humorous romp that lacks much serious tone actually enhances the point. Of course, humorous or not, this perceived conflict is not uncommon across our cultural framework. Not only are we wary of the elderly while paying lip service to respecting them, but this scepticism extends to every member of our society who needs any kind of assistance. To need help is, in our common logic, somehow to be less of a person.  The relationship our society has to our older citizens is only getting more and not less complicated. For some time now it has felt like the elderly do not get the kind of care and respect we imagine they recieved in the past (I say imagined because it is very possible those images are more romanticized than real). I think most reasonable people think that older folks deserve care and respect, but we are not always sure how to treat them as they age and become less able to care for themselves. This is of course worsened by the number of people getting much older thus increasing the population size that needs almost around the clock care. How do we cater to these individuals needs with out infantilizing them? On top of that, the divides between perceived generations is widening and not without cause. Younger people have it irrefutably harder today culturally and economically than the ones who came before them, and thanks to a more clear vision of the mistakes of the past, many folks have developed a bitterness toward boomers. This is also both justified in that the boomer generation spent a lot of time valorizing and mythologizing their youth while also supporting policies that have left us in a quagmire. So, how do you make a movie in this climate that both treats elderly folks with respect, tells a human story about them, shows their power and resilience, BUT ALSO takes seriously their needs and limitations? Well, I got to say, Thelma comes pretty dang close.

While I respect what the film pulls off, I do think there is a sharper, shorter, and more direct version of this movie that could exist. I appreciate the journey it brought me on, but I suspect that the humor could have been punchier immediately without detriment to the characters or story. Some of the gags in the care facility felt tired to me, and if it were not for the “high speed” escape scene the care facility sequence might have felt like a waste. Still, despite some wasted energy here and there, the majority of the film works. I wish it had a less rocky take off, but the film manages to stick the landing in a compelling way and left me excited I got to see it. Making a film that takes seriously such nuanced aging and social issues while managing to be mostly hilarious is no small feat, and I respect that Thelma was able to pull it off.

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