Here is the terrible truth that lies at the heart of Norwegian horror film Thelma: Sometimes, people you trust will whisper their dysfunction into your heart and call it love.
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Directed by Joachim Trier, Thelma opens with a scene that is beautifully shot and awful in its implication. A little girl walks into a snowy pasture with her father, whose clothes and rifle indicate he’s going hunting. She walks ahead of him, quiet as can be, and they come upon an unsuspecting deer. But when the father raises the rifle, it’s to point it at his daughter. The need to know what’s fueling that moment is key to the experience of watching Thelma.
That little girl grows up to be a young woman (Eili Harboe) who moves away from her small town to go to college in the big city of Oslo. At times, Thelma can seem like a slower, sleepier version of Carrie; it’s concerned with self-discovery, the cruelties that arrive with coming of age, and the electric mix of excitement and dread that comes with inserting oneself into new social circles and the larger worlds around us. College is the first time that Thelma has lived away from her religious, overprotective parents. She doesn’t tell her folks who she’s meeting and undershares what and how she’s actually doing.
The young woman’s life take a dramatic turn when she experiences violent seizures that wrack her body, most of which happen when she’s experiencing intense desire or sexual curiosity about other people. Thelma’s never felt such things before and the feelings are most intense around Anja (Okay Kaya), another student she first meets while studying in the library. Thelma’s feelings for Anja—lust, infatuation, curiosity—represent everything that’s she’s been told is sinful and wrong. As she sees doctors to try and figure out the mysterious ailment, it becomes apparent that Thelma is unprepared for the world and what’s churning inside of her.
The cinematography in Thelma is exquisite, unfurling in lots of slow wide tracking shots used to create scope, mood, and dread. Imagery from the natural world lends an occult air to the proceedings and there’s a hazy border between what’s real and imagined. But when the supernatural erupts in Thelma, it happens with shocking ecstasy. The title character’s investigations reveal that the strange power coursing through her is a cursed family birthright, one that’s been buried underneath lies, medication, and religious fervor. She prays fervently that she can stop feeling what she’s feeling and retreats back home to get help from her doctor father and wheelchair-bound mom. As mysterious things happen in Thelma’s body, soul, and mind, Harboe’s performance moves expertly through an impressive range of emotions, channelling dread, surprise, frustration, and faux enthusiasm with aplomb. For Thelma, there’s no escaping the fact that her power has the potential to cause tragedy. Yet nothing can stop what’s roiling inside her, because it’s a truth that can’t be denied.
There’s a powerful strain of feminist subtext running through Thelma that manifests as female characters help each other heal from the hurts wrought upon them by men. Thelma’s journey through her family history informs the frightening emergence of her innermost self. She learns that there have been women like her throughout history—imbued with the power to make seemingly impossible things happen but stifled by paranoia and distrust—and must find the strength to avoid sharing their fate. More importantly, the most powerful moment happens when she realizes that what’s inside her is her, and that she’ll only be happy when she casts off the strictures that her upbringing has placed on her.