Thelma opens with a chillingly memorable sequence of a young girl and her dad, who go for a wintery stroll in rural Norway. They make their way from the frozen lake, where she observes the fish swimming beneath the icy surface, into the snow-caked woods. He raises his hunting rifle and begins to target the deer they’ve both spotted. As she looks towards the animal, her father slowly pivots his aim towards the back of his daughter’s head, only to lose his nerve.
We jump forward to the now grown-up eponymous character (Eili Harboe) having left the sheltered confines of her religious household for the university of Oslo. Her overbearing parents (Henrik Rafaelson, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, both excellent) call several times a day and fuel her sense of isolation. Thelma does however get closer to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and as she struggles with her attraction towards her classmate, she begins to suffer from seizures, which develop into psychokinetic abilities that ominously coincide with avian shitstorms in the sky.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier fuses a coming-of-age story with psychological horror for his fourth feature, and comparisons with Brian De Palma’s Carrie are inescapable, as well as Carol Morley’s criminally underseen The Falling. These films deal with the hallowed genre tradition of metaphorically employing supernatural phenomena to deal with the turmoil of adolescence. The unsettling result here isn’t the full-blown shocker it might initially seem, nor does it fully indulge the obvious lesbian horror tropes as one might expect. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt are instead more interested in dealing with the sclerotising effects of oppressive religious upbringing, repressed sexuality, and the nefarious effects dismissed childhood trauma can have in the development of one’s identity. Tantalisingly, these last aspects mean it often plays out like a darkly naturalistic spin on an X-Men origin story.
From that description, it should be clear that the script over-ambitiously tries to cram in a bit too much, leading to some mildly disjointed moments and an unnecessary happy-end final beat. That being said, Ola Fløttum’s suitably ominous score – which judiciously includes Agnes Obel’s mesmerising track “Familiar” – and Jakob Ihre’s striking cinematography pick up some of the slack. Ihre in particular offers some foreboding overhead shots and stylish tableaus that make even repeated serpentine Biblical motifs fall on the right side of evocative, as it taps into the character’s turmoil to reconcile her faith with her sexual awakening. Thelma remains a chillingly effective psychodrama, which boasts a career-launching turn from newcomer Eili Harboe, who should be rightfully fighting off casting offers on the basis of her nuanced lead performance.
Thelma | Directed by Joachim Trier (Norway, 2017), with Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelson, Ellen Dorrit Petersen. Starts March 22.
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