Review: Thriller 'Thelma' takes an unsettling look at religion and sexuality
By JUSTIN CHANG | Los Angeles Times | Published: December 1, 2017
"Thelma" begins in a remote stretch of wintry wilderness, where a man and his young daughter step gingerly across a frozen lake and into the woods nearby. The father has a rifle, presumably with the intention of shooting a fawn that pops into view. But after taking careful aim, he suddenly swings the weapon in an unexpected direction. The screen cuts to black before we see what happens next, but a powerful sense of unease takes hold. Who is the hunter in this picture, and who is the prey?
The answer isn't entirely clear even a decade or so later, when we catch up with Thelma (an excellent Eili Harboe), a freshman biology student at a university in Oslo. Even for a first-year who finds herself adrift in a big city, Thelma seems unusually lonely. Her extreme isolation is driven home by an early shot that slowly picks her out in a crowded plaza with a slow, creeping zoom that recalls "The Conversation." That isn't the only 1970s American classic looming large over this movie, which at times plays like "Carrie" in Scandinavian deep freeze.
A muted and moody supernatural chiller, "Thelma" marks a first foray into quasi-horror territory for Norwegian director Joachim Trier, who scripted the film with his usual writing partner, Eskil Vogt. After 2015's "Louder Than Bombs," a sensitive if unpersuasive drama about an American family reeling from tragedy, Trier has returned to native soil, geographically at least, where he made his dazzling debut feature, "Reprise" (2006), and its wrenching follow-up, "Oslo, August 31st" (2011). What all these films share, apart from a love of formal innovation, is an acute sensitivity to the experiences of young people, and of the sorrow and disillusionment that seem to be their natural inheritance in any time or place.
Thelma, at least initially, seems to possess a narrower emotional register than most. She lives out of a suitcase in a sparsely furnished apartment. Her parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are strict fundamentalist Christians who call her every day, peppering her with gentle but insistent questions about her schedule, her diet and the company she keeps.
One afternoon, she's studying in the library when she suffers a violent seizure and collapses, a reaction that might well have something to do with the birds flying in ominously Hitchcockian formations outside the window. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that when it happens, she's sitting next to a lovely student named Anja (Norwegian American musician Kaya Wilkins), who, after the incident, befriends Thelma and gradually brings her out of her shell.
The two young women begin hanging out together and in large groups, where Thelma's forthright Christian beliefs come in for some genial mockery. In due time, she lets her guard down, drinking her first beer and smoking her first cigarette, and drawing Anja toward her with a power that seems almost otherworldly. In one of the film's most striking set pieces, she attends a dance performance where Anja's hand casually brushes against her leg, triggering a reaction that might make you fear for the architectural stability of the concert hall. By the time the two lock lips, triggering a surreal blur of flashbacks and serpentine imagery, it's clear that something deeply unsettling has been unleashed.
That something, of course, might simply be a young woman's late-blooming sexual independence; if the hormonal metaphors are awfully hard to miss, the allusions to movies like "Black Swan," "The Exorcist" and "The Fury" are obvious enough to trip over. "Thelma" is tense, thoughtful and beautifully composed, and it contains at least two sequences, both of them flashbacks, that tap into a vividly primal sense of terror. It also contains moments that suggest an upscale European spin on a standard-issue schlock horror movie, the kind where big revelations come courtesy of a few creepy Google searches and a trip to the mental hospital.
In these moments, you almost wish that Trier, rather than holding back, had simply gone for broke. There is impressive nuance to this vision, to be sure; even Thelma's parents, who might have tilted into authoritarian caricature, are basically the nicest, most loving religious extremists you've ever met. But there is also a certain slackness and hesitation, an unwillingness to go for obvious payoffs, that suggests a filmmaker more in command of his craft than of what he wants to say.
Harboe's performance is a compelling slow thaw, her unassuming mask of a face gradually flushing with color and feeling. That the film seems less interested in harnessing the full extent of her telekinetic abilities than in shaking her loose from her emotional repression is somehow more admirable than satisfying. You could read "Thelma" as a saga of Sapphic liberation, a fiery critique of religious patriarchy or perhaps yet another superhero's traumatic origin story; it's graceful and ambiguous enough to support each of these readings. But the more possibilities the movie seems to entertain, the more its cumulative power seems to dissipate.
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