Film Review: Thelma

An accomplished coming-of-age psychodrama-cum-thriller with echoes of 'Carrie,' 'Thelma' unsettles and frightens.
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With three previous features rooted in memory and identity, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier has proven his knack for well-calibrated, slow-burn dramas. It feels like a natural next step for him to investigate a loner’s headspace (a theme he hinted at with Oslo, August 31) in a deeper manner via the supernatural psychodrama-cum-thriller Thelma, which marks the writer-director’s first female-driven effort. The result is a cool, unnerving genre film with genuine jolts and scares—one that feels both old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time.

Centered on a late-blooming, home-schooled college freshman, Thelma delivers uncanny echoes of Brian de Palma’s 1976 coming-of-age horror film Carrie with finesse. It also confidently updates and builds on the modern-day, minimalist conventions of Let the Right One In and Goodnight Mommy.

Elli Harboe plays the friendless Thelma, who moves to Oslo from her isolated suburban home to begin her university studies and finds herself, probably for the first time in her life, surrounded by her own age group. Raised in a conservative environment by overly religious and overbearing parents (whose rigid control over her suffocates even the viewer), Thelma struggles with her transition from a quiet, one-note life to a potentially riveting one, full of exciting possibilities. An out-of-the-blue seizure attack, the cause of which doctors can’t quite pin down, casts a shadow over her early days in college. But as a result of this inexplicable episode, she at least meets and befriends Anja (Okay Kaya), who generously welcomes Thelma into her own circle of friends. Initially standing her religious ground and rejecting alcohol at parties and gatherings, Thelma slowly loosens up, thanks to a mutual romantic attraction she shares with Anja.

The film charts Thelma’s subtle transformation and quiet rebellion with incisive clues: her clothes, makeup and the way she wears her hair all receive understated upgrades. But this is no ordinary story of love or sexual awakening, as we grasp straight away. Once the conflicted Thelma acts upon her sexual attraction, the film makes us anticipate the worst and delivers on our ghastly expectations. Meanwhile, Trier’s intriguing opening sequence suggesting a peculiarly troubled childhood for Thelma pays off in increments. Through additional flashbacks, Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt reveal Thelma’s mysterious telekinetic powers that involuntarily overcome her as a means of coping with unwelcome situations. Ultimately, the film fully discloses the truth about her dark history through a chain of disturbing, paranormal events from the past and present.

We won’t reveal the true nature of Thelma’s powers here, or all the sinister consequences she births against her will. Rest assured, there is no prom bloodbath here and Trier doesn’t leave you hanging, especially after unsettling you with symbolic images of drowning, serpents and flashing lights. (Those who suffer from claustrophobia and photosensitive epilepsy, beware.) The mood Trier creates, which can be read through the lens of a number of allegories for coming out, religious oppression and teenage angst, is both cunning and sexy. But the film’s most distinguished achievement lies in recognizing what most films about adolescence prefer to tackle lightly: Coming of age is bloodcurdling stuff.

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