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Four people stand for a photo against a Sundance Film Festival backdrop.

“Thelma” Introduces a Refreshing New (93-Year-Old) Action Hero

(L–R) Josh Margolin, Fred Hechinger, June Squibb, and Clark Gregg pose for a photo celebrating the premiere of “Thelma” on January 18, 2024, at the Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

As time barges thoughtlessly on, carving new wrinkles and dreaded senior moments along the way, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to wish to be more like Thelma. As Danny, 24, lovingly describes his 93-year-old grandmother, she’s “a little wobbly but determined.”

Thelma played opening night Thursday, January 18, in the Premieres section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, introducing to audiences the feisty woman brought to life by veteran actor June Squibb. When Thelma discovers she’s been scammed into paying $10,000 to get her grandson out of trouble that he’s not actually in, she laces up her sneakers and sets out to get her money back. 

And with that, America gets a new action hero — speeding hellbent for leather through the city on a borrowed red mobility cart, tipping wildly upon two wheels around the corners, while spouting witty one-liners.

“She… terrifyingly did most of her own stunts,” writer-director Josh Margolin says in his Meet The Artist video. “I think Tom Cruise would be proud.”

Margolin based the story on his own Grandma Thelma. In the post-premiere Q&A, Margolin says, “She’s always been such a stalwart presence in my life.” When she almost fell prey to a similar phone scam, the germ of a film was born. He started imagining his grandma doing the same thing his cinematic Thelma does. 

He wanted to convey in the film the spirit and tenacity of his grandmother, while also exploring issues like aging, mortality, and family dynamics. He had Squibb in mind for the role from the start because the two share the same toughness and vulnerability — and they’re both funny. Margolin’s Grandma Thelma is now 103. (For more on the two Thelmas, check out Margolin’s Q&A on the Festival website.)

Complementing Squibb’s performance are Fred Hechinger as lovable, well-meaning grandson Danny; Sundance regular Parker Posey and Clark Gregg (Phil Coulson in many Marvel movies) as her daughter and son-in-law; and the legendary late Richard Roundtree (most famous for playing detective John Shaft in the Shaft film series) as Thelma’s reluctant but loyal sidekick (and the owner of said red mobility cart).

Squibb and Hechinger both say it was easy to create the closeness of Thelma and Danny. “We liked each other from the beginning,” says Squibb. “It was fun.” And Squibb is quick to brag on her action skills: “Notice how well I drove that scooter!”

This is Squibb’s first leading role in a 70-plus-year career — Alice, About Schmidt, and Other People are just a few of her films. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2013’s Nebraska.

In answer to a question from the audience, Margolin and Squibb consult briefly. Could there be a sequel? “We’re thinking there’s a possibility,” says Margolin.