Although mankind would like to think that they have free will throughout their life, there is the inarguable fact that one has absolutely no control over their upbringing. We are brought into this world knowing nothing and are powerless from being imprinted with the values and ideologies of our parents, guardians, and mandated norms in general. Even as we reach early adulthood and enter a broader world and scope of freedom, the strains of one’s childhood—whether blatant or subconscious—still linger. In Joachim Trier’s latest film, Thelma, this theme is richly explored through dark and supernatural elements that build to a beautifully poignant moment.
The film’s titular character is a biology student at a college in Oslo who is clearly a prisoner to her parent's overbearing presence. Raised Catholic and ever cast under their watchful eye (they even regularly check her social media), Thelma has shunned alcohol and even close friendships during her time in academia. However, things take a turn for the unexpected when she meets another female student at her school named Anja (Kaya Wilkins).
After Thelma suffers an intense seizure at a study hall, Anja makes her acquaintance and forges a bond with her that quickly turns romantic. Of course, her religious parents don’t approve of this. But as her seizures become more common, she begins to unravel a dark past—and an extraordinary power inside her.
It would be accurate to call Thelma a supernatural thriller—or perhaps simply a horror film—but it isn’t captured like a genre film at all. Norwegian director/co-writer Joachim Trier (yes, he is related to Lars von Trier, albeit distantly) has become a recognizable talent amidst European filmmakers, receiving particular attention for 2011’s haunting addiction drama, Oslo, August 31st. Thelma sees Trier bringing his arthouse sensibilities to a more visceral tapestry, but fortunately, the director proves that he’s capable of capturing human magic alongside the otherworldly, and in a way, that’s nothing short of mesmerizing.
Right from Thelma’s very first shot, the film casts a very ominous tone that never wavers throughout its nearly two-hour running time. Still, as dark as the tone is, it never feels overwhelming as the pacing is just so exemplary. While the first act of the film goes at a fairly brisk pace, with scenes tending to be brief and jumpy (I actually likened the editing style to some examples from French New Wave cinema), the scenes grow more deliberate after the exposition. Thelma’s story certainly goes in an interesting direction when the supernatural elements come into play, but it remarkably doesn’t disrupt the film’s realism either.
Thelma hosts a plethora of dream-like scenes that are captured with maturity and nuance. Thelma’s hallucinations with animals project her inner frustration and budding sexuality, perhaps best captured in a love scene she has with Anya in which we see a snake envelop her body. There’s also really resonant scenes that are filmed underwater—not only are they rich in splendor but they're instrumental in character development.
Joachim Trier demonstrates he’s a master of symbolism in this film with imagery that has a very cyclical nature in the narrative. There are some unforgettable images regarding nature within the film’s first act, although much of this dissipates when the story begins to focus more on college life. Make no mistake, though, these images do return during the evocative third act and contribute to a sublime buildup that you may not have even noticed was occurring.
Of course, a transgressive character study such as Thelma demands a gifted actress for its title character, and Eili Harboe proves to be just that. Making her first appearance in a starring role in this film, Harboe is in the majority of the film’s scenes, which calls for her to wear multiple faces. While the character is initially wounded, she grows more confident once she truly comes to apprehend her capabilities, and she does this without error. As Anja, Kaya Wilkins (who comes more from a background as a musician) proves to have strong chemistry with Harboe, and the scenes they have together are frequently uplifting even amidst the morose atmosphere. Here’s hoping the two young ladies will both have fruitful acting careers ahead of them.
In any other year, Thelma might have come off as strikingly original, but in 2017, it coincidentally bears resemblance to a few other arthouse releases to come out earlier in the year. The French film Raw was also a commentary on the pitfalls and liberations of college discovery; Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper also found cinematic tactics for using smartphones for high dramatic effect; even Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! encroached on similar thematic territory regarding the tumultuous effects of religion (albeit in a far less effective manner).
Thelma outdoes all of these movies, though, and not just in terms of craft and depth (which it does) but also in how it’s so life-affirming. While the film’s tone is indescribably dark, the last scene is one to cherish, and it makes the whole chilling experience in getting there close on an indelibly warm note. For that reason, Thelma is one of 2017’s top-tier, must-see releases, and as Norway’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards, here’s hoping that Joachim Trier might be a first-time Oscar recipient in the coming months.
Watch the trailer for Thelma!
See also: Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.