Fantastic Fest 2017: Joachim Trier's Gripping & Unnerving 'Thelma'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 22, 2017
Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier is an artist whose works are always delivered with a healthy dose of message. With Oslo, August 31st (2011) and Louder than Bombs (2015), the filmmaker broke onto the scene ready to force the viewers of his films into deep reflection and meticulous thought. It's no surprise that Trier's latest film, Thelma, comes with that same level of analysis but with an increasingly engaging, sci-fi/horror tale to go along with it. Thelma is a slow burn film, but what starts out as a low simmer eventually builds into a rolling boil, all of which is presented to the viewer with outstanding execution. It's the kind of horror story that keeps the viewer's skills of dissection at work long after the film is over.
Norwegian actress Eili Harboe stars as the eponymous Thelma, a young, college student attending a university in Oslo. She comes from a background of intense, religious identity that only serves to keep her at arm's length from her student peers. The occasional seizure Thelma endures also adds to the girl's troubles fitting in, and the supernatural effects of those seizures aren't helping matters one bit.
Everything changes – possibly for the worse – when Thelma meets Anja (played by Kaya Wilkins), also a fellow student whose life is much less conservative than that of Thelma's and with whom the troubled girl grows an emotional attachment. The two quickly build an intimate connection that flies in the face of Thelma's religious upbringing, and the conflict within the girl only intensifies when those seizures and effects that stem from them take a dark turn.
All throughout the film Trier presents his story with a deliberate pace, allowing the environment in which the girl finds herself plenty of room to present itself and breathe. Any coming-of-age story about a girl closed off from the rest of the world provides a healthy dose of conflict, and Trier never shies away from this. Contrarily, he steers the film into it, creating an intense level of isolation long before the otherworldly factors come into play. On that end, Trier doesn't throw supernatural scares in the viewer's face, instead allowing the pace of the film to play into its unnerving feeling from the very beginning.
This creates a natural identity within the film's lead character, a sense of perspective and juxtaposition that gives Trier's message int his film about repression and self-realization an even stronger hand. The scenes with Thelma's religious parents, played with precision by Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen, are uncomfortable from the young girl's perspective, flashbacks filling in the gaps of why her parents are so adamant about Thelma's seclusion and innocence. It's an unnerving state of affairs even without the otherworldly side effects, and Trier delivers it all with meticulous clarity and deliberate drive.
As the troubled, young girl, Harboe brings a strong sense of that innocence with every emotion in her performance. Thelma is at once confused by the forces in her life pulling her in opposite directions, and that youthfulness in which Harboe organically fills the part makes the dangers all the more foreboding. As with the film itself, Harboe's character and performance travels along a steady path, never forcing any intensity either in the dangers or the sexual feelings burgeoning within the girl. Even in the film's latter moments, when the powers building within Thelma fully present themselves, Harboe and Trier keeps a steady hand that makes it all that much more unsettling.
Thelma is a silently gripping, coming-of-age tale that utilizes the filmmaker's message as well as its horrors with perfect accuracy. The film's atmosphere provides the strongest sense of the dangers at hand, but, even without the sci-fi/horror elements at work, Trier's latest film would be a powerful story of self-reflection and innocence lost in the face of parental control. For all that it has to offer, Thelma is likely to go down as one of the best films about the horrors of finding oneself to come along in quite some time.
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