Thelma review Eili HarboeYear: 2017
Director(s): Joachim Trier
Writer(s): Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Region of Origin: Norway

Rating: n/a
Color, 116 mins

Synopsis: A young woman begins to fall in love, only to discover that she has fantastic powers… (Source)

There are so many things I want to say about Thelma, but the less I do, the better. Director Joachim Trier has crafted a sophisticated story that thrives in the elusiveness of its seductive mystery. If I had to put a label on it, I could say it’s a horror film, yet that title feels too small for the film’s existential breadth. What’s more, there aren’t any jump scares, monsters or overt gore, but instead a more intimate type of unease, one birthed in repression and a longing for human connection. What I can say, is that this is definitely one of the most haunting films of the year. It unfolds on its own pace, and its riddles are deeply tied to the things that make us human. Desire, love, loneliness, fear, guilt, hope, nothing is off the table for Trier, who examines all of these ideas through two powerhouse performances from Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins. Thelma is a one-of-a-kind achievement that forces us to confront the parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed or had the courage to face.

Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a biology student who’s left her small town in Norway for Oslo. She keeps her head buried in books, doesn’t draw attention to herself and is barely a blip amongst her classmates. In essence, she’s a nobody, keeping her well-meaning yet overprotective parents at arm’s length while slowly fading to the background of her own world. That all changes when she meets a girl named Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Their first meeting is a fleeting one, coinciding with a brutal seizure that pushes Thelma into an unwanted limelight. Thelma’s doctor assures that he’ll monitor her condition, but doesn’t find any cause for alarm just yet. Meanwhile, Anja takes an interest in Thelma, and the pair find themselves inextricably drawn to one another. Soon, their friendship blossoms into romance, but the closer they get, the more Thelma’s unknown illness retaliates. As Thelma’s world is turned upside down, she discovers that there’s something frightening hidden deep within her.

Trier’s labyrinthian puzzle never goes where we’d expect. Things open with a bang, not a physical one, but a psychological blow that hints at something sinister. From here, Trier immerses us into Thelma’s loneliness, lowering our defenses with a forbidden romance that captures the intoxicating feeling of first love. But this newfound freedom is also laced with religious guilt, and soon the battle within Thelma’s head turns something innocent into constant dread. Suddenly, Trier’s explorations about  learning to let others in becomes a supernatural struggle tied to the sins of Thelma’s past and the true cost of our greatest desires. This progression is a surprising, one, yet feels earned, expanding Thelma’s story into something bigger. Naturally, the entire film is lined with biblical metaphor (snakes!) and surreal imagery, like lightning gliding along the bottom of a swimming pool and other more terrifying visions. The final product ends up being a visually poetic albeit unsettling look at the relationship between lust, love and companionship, and how these things can both purify and corrupt.

Thelma review Eili Harboe Kaya WilkinsBecause of its at times abstract narrative and a central riddle that defies classification, the film benefits from the human touches of its central leads. Harboe shines by giving her titular character the complexity she needs. Thelma is an amalgam of primal instincts, yet Harboe’s able to make all of these ideas feel intimate and tangible. Harboe renders a truly broken character, resulting in a transformation that has insidious consequence. Wilkins’ Anja is deliberately kept distant, but still a massive presence. Wilkins’ performance is nuanced and subversive in many ways, especially considering the duality and context of her role – she’s impossible to ignore when on screen, and noticeably absent when not. Because of the talent behind these two characters, the story’s midpoint twist and its implications are that much more devastating. Henrik Rafaelsen’s Trond and Ellen Dorrit Petersen’s Unni also leave a mark as Thelma’s parents, adding texture and emotional depth to Thelma’s unfolding story.

I can’t stress enough how special and unique of a film Thelma is. It finds power by twisting the mundane with the supernatural, and its breathtaking portrayal of psychological paranoia and anguish is as sincere as it gets. There are, however, some rather dark implications at its core. As Trier’ dissects the naivety accompanied with coming of age, he ends up posing the question of whether we’re all but doomed to destroy the people we love. It’s this thorny concept that sticks with us most, leading to other questions about our innate need for affection, understanding and purpose. The scariest thing about the film’s character study is how it stares deep into the abyss of human longing, pulling us down right with it.

SG