Female maturation has long been a source of interest in horror, from Carrie to Ginger Snaps, right up to this year’s phenomenal French cannibal coming of age story, Raw. Joachim Trier’s Thelma, named after his tortured protagonist, is a slighter, quieter, more conservative addition to their number that manages to pack a considerable punch without flooding the screen with blood and guts (metaphorical or otherwise).
The brilliant Eili Harboe (The Wave) is Thelma, a bright young woman embarking on her first real adult experience by attending college. Away from her super-religious parents for the first time in her life, Thelma is initially overwhelmed by everything, and everybody, around her. She spends much of her time alone, either in her dorm room chatting unhappily on the phone to her folks or observing others from afar.
Wisely, Trier keeps his camera trained on Harboe’s wide, open features during these initial moments, the pain behind her eyes visible to the audience if not her fellow students. Later, during a chance encounter in the library, Thelma suffers what seems to be an epileptic fit, which leads to a blossoming friendship with cool girl Anja (Kaja Wilkins). And, as the two grow closer, Thelma finds herself gradually losing control as the intimacy of their relationship tests her emotional and psychological boundaries.
Thelma is the kind of brooding, emotionally-charged movie that demands your full attention at all times. It’s the kind of movie you feel rather than watch. Instead of referring to his protagonist’s possible psychokinetic abilities throughout, Trier only provides little hints here and there. This, coupled with the Carrie-esque suggestion that Thelma not only knows what power she possesses but can control it, at least to a certain degree, gives the story real emotional depth.
It’s not even, technically, a supernatural movie (IMDb calls it both drama, mystery and romance), at least not in the same way something like The Conjuring is — there are no dishes levitating and flying at walls here. Rather, Thelma’s otherworldly abilities coincide with her sexual awakening as she confronts deep-seated feelings she probably always knew were there (as hinted at when she watches a gay couple holding hands in a restaurant).
There’s a suggestion that religious beliefs perhaps kept her in check all these years, but Trier, and Eskil Vogt, with whom he co-wrote the script, appear to be implying that Thelma’s “real” self couldn’t be hidden forever either way. And, in a refreshing break from the norm, Thelma seeks help immediately for her issues, rather than hiding her condition from everyone around her in hopes it will just go away, like the most infuriating of movie protagonists.
As the titular character, Harboe appears in virtually every scene, her face often filling the screen as Trier shoots her in soul-searching close-ups. Harboe is a quietly commanding screen presence, her Thelma neither as meek nor as naive as she initially appears; a young woman who, although she probably won’t burn the school gym to the ground, is clearly capable of asserting herself when need be (interestingly, this isn’t really a cautionary tale about bullying, either).
Wilkins is a nicely understated match for her, the pained expression she sports for much of the movie betraying a life spent putting on a happy face for others (a conversation with her mother, during which Anja is scolded for not having eaten enough that day, speaks volumes). The friendship between the two women, both outsiders in their own ways, is effortless, with their easy rapport setting up a subsequent move into more romantic territory perfectly.
Trier is careful not to go overboard with either the horror elements or the love story at the heart of Thelma (Blue Is the Warmest Colour this is not), instead keeping everything reined in so the focus remains on Thelma, and her internal, gradually external, struggle throughout. Perhaps the movie’s biggest shock comes when a snake coils around Thelma before entering her mouth head-first (a clear metaphor for sin), and even that isn’t quite as straightforward as it initially appears.
It’s an odd little film, more melancholy and plaintive than outright scary or troubling, that slowly crawls under your skin. Trier isn’t interested in chastising religious fundamentalists or experimenting teenagers, nor is he making any grand point about LGBTQ relationships. Thelma is a complex character, but she’s easily identified and empathised with, and there’s no question the audience is meant to root for her.
Even so, Thelma is nicely unpredictable and, at just short of two hours, it takes its time in getting to the inevitable confrontation between daughter and the parents who may have been lying to her all these years. Flashbacks flesh out Thelma’s backstory but are largely unnecessary in a film as emotionally involving as this one. In fact, Trier would’ve been better off leaving even more to the imagination (although he nails the ending with just the right amount of pathos).
By keeping the focus on Thelma herself, Trier has crafted an inspired, evocative and inescapably universal coming-of-age story about a young woman learning to face who she truly is. Similar to the all-time greats of the sub-genre, Thelma is more concerned with the individual’s search for self than anything otherworldly.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.