Whenever I read an article about an LGBTQ person who was raised in a strict religious household describing their arduous journey into accepting their identity, I’m always struck by how much they thought of their sexual orientation as a curse or a horrible disease when they were first faced with it, leading them to years of pleading God to take the “illness” away. These stories are filled with night after night of praying while sobbing, telling God that they’ll do anything to make the attraction towards the same sex disappear.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is one of those people. A meek and quiet young woman moving away from her strict Christian parents (Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorit Petersen) for the first time in her life in order to study Biology in a Norwegian university, she’s devoted to her faith and doesn’t indulge in alcohol, drugs or other earthly desires. All of that changes when she sits next to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a warm-hearted and empathetic schoolmate, during a study session.
The two don’t even know each other yet, but Thelma’s close proximity to a girl she feels an intense attraction toward is enough to trigger a violent seizure. This doesn’t stop Thelma from initiating a friendship with Anja, and the obvious burgeoning attraction between the two forces Thelma into further incontrollable convulsions that might be the result of her intense rejection of her feelings, spurned by her religion’s denunciation of homosexuality.
Director Joachim Trier’s filmography is chock full of deft, honest, respectful and insightful examinations of common problems that young people face. His terrific Oslo, August 31st was a story told in real time, about a recovering drug addict struggling to put his demons behind him in order to move forward with an at least nominally happy existence. In many ways, Thelma treats her attraction toward Anja as an addiction she’d like to shake off, yet it predictably persists.
Instead of relying on direct exposition, Trier inserts the audience into Thelma’s mind through suggestive visual language—quick cuts to flashbacks, close-ups of body parts, split-second looks of unarticulated desire. A breathtaking sequence that shows Thelma hallucinating an ember of fire traveling through her and Anja’s bodies as they touch each other poetically captures the raw heat of such intense connections we all feel at least at one point in our lives.
With subtle yet internally passionate performances by the two leads, Thelma would have worked fine as a straight drama about the protagonist’s inner conflict and journey towards hopefully acknowledging her nature. What makes it special is in the way Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt wrap this already palpable drama around a fairly downplayed supernatural horror premise with surgical precision. Art-house horror using complex themes instead of a straight boogeyman to make us afraid has been something of a thing in cinema during 2017, thanks to releases like It Comes at Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Mother leading the charge. Trier’s patient and subdued unraveling of the story’s horror angle, which cleverly relies on building more mystery than it clears up as the narrative moves along at a fairly slow but hypnotic pace, makes sure that Thelma proudly belongs in that group of unique and inventive genre exercises.
In his first such genre outing, Trier shows admirable restraint as he focuses on character detail rather than showmanship, even when he patiently primes us for a third act that dips its toe into some conventional horror tropes that could have resulted in a hokey and atonal climax in the hands of a less accomplished director. Instead, we’re treated to an ending that’s morally multifaceted yet emotionally satisfying.
You’ll notice that I didn’t give much detail about how supernatural horror is inserted into this story, or how any of the information I gave you about the characters and the film’s core premise can possibly be connected to a trippy, melancholic, deliciously surreal horror tale. That’s by design. Thelma is a genre-bender that should be viewed with as little information about its many unexpected twists and turns as possible. With strong performances from the two young leads (who express yearning passion ready to burst through their bottled-up emotions), assured direction, and a patiently told story that takes some chances that end up paying off, Thelma is certainly a unique experience.
Director: Joachim Trier
Writer: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt
Starring: Elli Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorit Petersen
Release Date: November 10, 2017
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.