Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: December 1st
Thelma (both the film and the titular character) knows exactly what it’s like to be gay and lonely in your first year of university. And also to have magic powers, maybe.
Thelma has moved to Oslo for her studies, leaving behind an isolated, religious childhood. Away from home and without parental guidance for the first time, Thelma is starting to feel things she’s never felt before, and she has no idea how to process them. Some of these feelings are towards people her age that she can’t quite seem to connect with. Some of them are for Anja, a girl in her maths lecture. And some of of Thelma’s brand new feelings manifest in flickering lights, inexplicable seizures and sinister supernatural events.
For the first half of the film, director Joachim Trier perfectly encapsulates the intense fascination that comes with discovering your sexuality in a new land with new rules, and tentatively (so tentatively) going with it. Trier indulges the sidelong look Thelma gives a young woman in the library; the conflict between flinching from and melting into a hug; the long, consuming gaze she gives the back of Anja’s head at night. In the middle of Thelma’s overwhelming isolation and otherness, Trier captures the smile of waking up next to your one friend in a lonely place, knowing they are there and things are alright.
But things are not alright.
There’s been a lot of parallels drawn between Thelma and Brian de Palma’s Carrie as the coming-of-age of a young religious woman with supernatural abilities. But where Carrie White swiftly crashes into finding out everything she ever wanted was just a hoax, Thelma makes a stylized, measured descent into testing the dark limits of desire. The film is sinister, slow and intimately obsessive, and it lavishes much of its two hours on the tensions between Thelma’s ingrained morality and her new urban friends, Anja included. Her strict religious upbringing keeps Thelma reserved to a fault, which can sometimes drag the two hour runtime from slow-burn to standstill while she’s between plot-pushing decisions.
At the midpoint, a visually stunning manifestation of Thelma’s abilities marks a pivot in the story’s focus that could almost split the film in two. These halves are powerful in their own right, but so tonally and thematically divergent that the contrast left some longing for the first hour that I was so deeply immersed in. Suddenly the plot pulls away from the budding love story of a young gay woman with strange powers and begins answering questions disjointedly planted the first hour: What’s happening to Thelma? What can she do? Why is her mother in a wheelchair, why is her father so confrontational? What is the dark family secret buried inside her? I don’t know, but I kind of wish Anja was around more while I find out. I’m all for the recent rise in supernatural dramas like Personal Shopper, A Ghost Story, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Thelma is a good closer in a strong year for the genre.
Following Thelma’s journey of wanting, wanting to become, and becoming, Thelma echoes a long tradition of female-driven identity dramas, from Altman’s 3 Women all the way up to last year’s Raw, occasionally weaving into Suspiria-esque boarding school melancholy horror. Starting subtle and strong but plunging into dark waters, this intimate, deliberately fraught coming of age may not be perfect, but it captures moments of gay longing and loneliness in a modern age that I’ve never seen represented before, accentuated by a fairytale flair that never loses focus on its human heart.