By: Kevin Michael Boyle
Every year has its share of cinematic hidden gems, and Thelma is one of 2017s most hidden. The fourth film by director Joachim Trier (Louder than Bombs), Thelma is a genre hybrid of impeccable atmosphere anchored by what should be a star-making performance from Eili Harboe. You won’t have far to look when it comes to the film’s inspirations as Trier has assembled a story that would feel at home with Ingmar Bergman and Stephen King’s oeuvre. At its heart, Thelma is a coming of age story that asks some uncomfortable questions about religion, sexuality and breaking away from the family unit.
Set in both Oslo and the brutal cold of the Norwegian countryside, Thelma explores many forms of duality that a lot of people face when they leave familiar surroundings to branch out on their own. Before this though is a stark and uncomfortable opening scene. A man and his daughter are out hunting when they come across a deer. As the little girl is entranced by the deer’s grace and beauty, the man, her father, point the rifle at her head. Unable to pull the trigger the man relents and, with his daughter blissfully ignorant of her father’s intentions, returns home. As film openings go, Trier has pulled off a blinder, facilitating in the audience the knowledge that this film is a lot more than meets the eye.
We then fast-forward to the present day with the little girl now grown up into the film’s titular character. Trier starts the story proper with an overhead shot of a busy university courtyard as various students go about their business. Trier’s camera slowly zeroes in on Thelma, looking nervous and isolated. At university, Thelma meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and they begin to build a relationship beyond mere friendship, which awakens supernatural abilities that were lying dormant within Thelma.
While Thelma is far from a dense film, there is a lot going on under the surface. Trier has used the platform of a coming of age tale to explore a variety of themes that would feel at home in a variety of genres. The most obvious touchstone, at least for the supernatural elements of the film, is Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. Like Carrie, Thelma comes from a family where religion is the cornerstone of their beliefs, and like Carrie, its Thelma’s sexual awakening that unleashes her powers. While Carrie fits neatly into the horror trope of reproductive horror, Thelma instead explores the duality of Thelma’s religious beliefs and how they go against her feelings for Anja.
It’s through this that we learn more about Thelma’s family life which includes her father in the role of her keeper and her confessor. As her feelings for Anja grow, so do Thelma’s powers, which scares her so much that she immediately needs her father’s support. While she doesn’t divulge everything to him, she confesses to drinking alcohol, which is against her beliefs, while lying to her parents about what is really going on with her.
Out with the supernatural, and sexual aspects of the film, Thelma tells a frighteningly true story about the experience that a lot of people go through when they leave home for the first time. It wrenchingly puts across the isolation and loneliness that comes with trying to connect with people in a new situation, and the frustration at how easy it seems for other people to achieve. Thelma is about its heroine killing who she used to be, the person that was molded by her parent’s beliefs, and fears about her unpredictable powers. All coming of age drama are about their central characters redefining themselves as the type of person they want to be, and how they sometimes fall short of these expectations by accepting the influence, the significance of their past.
It’s also worth noting how easily Thelma could be the origin story of a being with extraordinary powers. Like Split before it, Thelma could be a back-door pilot for a completely different type of story. Thelma is an intimate, nuanced look at the type of person that could easily fit the mutant persona of an X-Men movie, but in a world where mutants are thought to be a fantasy.
With Thelma Joachim Trier has created his most intense film yet, a subtle character piece with themes that can be teased out through multiple viewings. If there’s any justice, Thelma should be the film that finally brings Trier to the mainstream, with Eili Harboe along with him.
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