Thelma

Thelma ★★★★

March Around the World, 7/30
2017 Ranked

Joachim Trier’s Thelma has been called a supernatural horror film and it is, but it feels as though it has a great deal in line with the new superhero fad that is sweeping Hollywood. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is not quite a superhero though. She definitely has some powers, however, and how she chooses use them toe the line between wicked and good. A young college student, Thelma was raised in a deeply Christian home by her controlling father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). There is a dark undercurrent to the film right from the start, depicting Trond and Thelma hunting when she was a little girl. Aiming a gun right at her head before losing the nerve to pull the trigger, Trier leaves the audience on edge. Why would her father want to kill her? It is this scene that colors the rest of the film, while Trond’s control over Thelma’s life through religion keeps influencing her life, especially once she starts to experience feelings for one of her female friends.

In the early stages, Thelma seems to be a different film than what it turns out to be. It is not hard to interpret it as a story of a young religious girl being corrupted by forces around her. Whether it is the intense lust she feels for Anja (Kaya Wilkins), her drinking alcohol, or her smoking weed, Thelma goes through a lot of the “worldly” corruption that religious parents fear their kids facing in college. Adding in serpent imagery, Trier makes it even easier to see the wicked forces at work in Thelma’s life. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that the wickedness implied by the serpent is not from outside forces. Her love for Anja is pure and her adventures in college enable her to finally escape the pit of loneliness Trond had pushed her into. Rather, the wickedness is from within. Religion had been pushed upon her and forced into her life by Trond as a means of controlling her, taming a telekinetic power that Thelma seemed to have by masking it with immense guilt. From there, self-repression followed as she tries to damn herself and Anja for what she feels. She lashes out at herself when things go poorly for Anja, believing herself to be responsible due to her intense hatred of how she makes her feels. It is a tragic story in this, one that will undoubtedly resonate with many people who are/were religious and slowly began to discover who they truly are and how that diverged from the religious doctrine they grew up in.

Thus, as much as it is a supernatural horror film - and a good one at that - Thelma feels like a story of self-acceptance and coming of age as Thelma must confront her ideology, her psychological issues, and her parental issues to become who she has always been. The self-repression (whether in her sexuality or the other elements preached against in her family’s religious home) is eating her alive from within. It is the wickedness within her that consumes her. She has superhuman powers that can be used as well, but what drags her down is that refusal to admit who she is and to live life the way she truly wants. Scenes of her thinking of Anja while the doctors try to induce a seizure - she has been suffering seizures due to her psychological issues, largely stemming from this self-repression - are marvelously directed by Trier with an increasing urgency as the film cross-cuts between her vision of Anja and Thelma on the table, but it also exemplifies the internal struggle she feels. She is teetering at the brink of destruction, crushing herself and Anja in the process as her superhuman powers are turned inward. The same powers that allow her to move things and even possibly kill (subconsciously intentional, but consciously not) had been turned around by her father and his religious conditioning. Rather than being neutralized, the powers continue to act out but in a way that consumes her and holds her back from others. It amplifies her loneliness, while keeping her under the influence of her cruel father.

Through this, Thelma becomes an unexpectedly romantic film. It boils down to a story of a young girl having to conquer personal demons to get back the woman she loves. Just as the heroic stories of knights rescuing some princess are often so romantic and thrilling, Thelma provides the same feeling. Except, this time it is a young woman with telekinetic powers fighting off the shackles placed upon her by her father and fighting against her own mind to retrieve her “princess”. Together, Thelma and Anja are excellent. The scenes of them kissing or simply holding hands are electrifying and liberating, adding a great heart and soul to the film that I did not expect. The chemistry of Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins together further benefits this side of the film, bringing with them a genuine demeanor that captures all of their trepidation in approaching this relationship.

These themes give Thelma a really strong backing that allows Trier to create a horror film around these ideas. Playing with hallucinations, the supernatural, and more tangible horror in the form of her parents medicating her, Thelma is an incredibly creepy work. From the very beginning, Trier builds a strong atmosphere of dread and suspense, following as she goes on this journey. It is an incredibly chilling film at times, especially whenever the supernatural imagery is introduced. However, where the film really excels when it comes to horror is less to do with the supernatural side. Rather, it is the more human horror that it probes. Whether it is loss, grief, trauma, or Thelma’s seizures, the film proves quite chilling. One of the best scenes of the film comes at an opera as a seizure stands to sneak up on Thelma due to her being near Anja, while desperately tries to control it while the musical performance intensifies on stage. Cross cutting between the two, it is a terrific usage of music while Trier perfectly paces it to elicit the strongest reaction from the audience. The subtle emotional horror he plays on, especially in flashback scenes with Thelma and her jealousy of little brother Mattias are terrific, sending a real chill up one’s spine with the horror captured shown in her parents. Even the treatment of grandma fits in with this, showing the horror average people are capable of every single day, whether or not they have telekinetic powers.

While a story of a young woman discovering she has telekinetic powers that help her confront the issues at school and at home she faces has been done before - Carrie - Thelma is a rather refreshing take on the issue. Either way, it is a chilling, romantic, and triumphant film that far exceeds any similarities it may have with prior works. Joachim Trier’s strong direction is matched by great performances that continuously elevate Thelma, all while compelling themes and a large heart give it a triumphant mood by the end. A terrific blend of supernatural horror, coming of age, and romance, Thelma is an incredibly rewarding film.