There’s something supernatural at work in Thelma, but despite the fears of the devout Christian family at its center, it’s nothing so sinister as the interference of the Devil. Instead, it’s the indefinable pang of the human heart. There’s no explanation for why we love the people we do, nor for the petty anger we can sometimes bear against those we are meant to love unconditionally. Thelma is similarly devoid of explicit answers, but it’s no less affecting for it.
The bulk of that credit rests on the shoulders of Eili Harboe, who plays Thelma. She’s spellbinding—blank one moment and shattered the next. Whether or not the film works, whether or not we can buy into not getting the answers, relies solely on her performance, and luckily, she’s more than up to the task.
Thelma has left home to attend college, though her parents are still extremely attentive, keeping tabs of where she is by tracking online course schedules and calling every day to make sure she’s all right. This may seem like too much, but we’re given clues straight off the bat that something’s wrong with her. In the very first scene of the film, a flashback, we see a young Thelma accompanying her father (Henrik Rafaelsen) hunting deer. Initially, he levels his gun at the deer, but slowly turns it to his daughter’s head. He doesn’t pull the trigger, but that immediate unease sets the tone for everything that’s to come.
The more Thelma’s shell breaks, the more often strange things start to happen. As she grows close to a fellow student, Anja (Kaya Walker), she begins to experience seizures that coincide with odd happenings, ranging from birds flying into the windows to— well, I’d hate to ruin the surprise. But let’s just say that, in this respect, the film shares a little DNA with another supernatural coming of age story, Carrie.
It differs in that Thelma’s instincts are less destructive (though, to be sure, they do fall squarely into the realm of horror). Director Joachim Trier is more interested in showing than telling; as such, Thelma’s powers are interesting in what they tell us about how she feels, not in just how much havoc she can wreak. The most potent example of this comes early: she dreams about Anja, and when she jolts awake, she sees Anja standing outside, looking up at her apartment. Anja says Thelma texted her to come, but when she checks her phone, there’s no message there. It’s not the act that matters; it’s the interpersonal bond.
As clinical as Trier’s style can seem, Thelma swells and aches just as its heroine does. The chemistry between the two leads is lovely—and only made “other” when filtered through the lens of Thelma’s conservative parents—and the level to which Trier is willing to lay Thelma emotionally bare is just as heartbreaking as it is harrowing. The supernatural may be foreign, but the root of it—the stirrings of love, the pain of loneliness—is familiar to us all.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Images: SF Studios Norway
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