"Thelma" blends genres and themes effortlessly
Self discovery can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It can also be horrific, if you’re not prepared for what you find. So it is in “Thelma,” one of the best horror films of 2017. Director Joachim Trier brings what is, in many ways, the origin story of a superhero to life with great care.
It just comes with more trauma than we’re used to seeing in an X-Men film. Make no mistake, that’s the best comparison to the Norwegian film; at least, as far as superhero flicks are concerned. “Thelma” is a good enough movie that it’s not worth going on about comparisons, though.
The religious, titular character (played by Eili Harboe) heads to university under the distant, but all-too watchful eyes of her parents, Trond and Unni. Their calls come every night, and they know everything about her life. The woman we meet at the beginning of “Thelma” is repressed, but beginning to question the world around her.
That’s when things get weird. A series of seizures, coincidentally timed with menacing, black birds smashing into windows, send Thelma into the care of doctors. She then meets Anja, a bright woman who she falls in love with. This conceit works because of Harboe’s terrific, honest performance.
As she struggles to find balance between the life she knew and the life she wants, the seizures come more frequently and more violently, and her powers begin to reveal themselves. To a young woman just beginning to discover herself, these powers aren’t a gift: they’re a curse. That might not sound fresh on first blush, but consider how little these topics are actually discussed in most genre films. They’re given their due in “Thelma.”
Likewise, a woman gaining power in both a physical and psychological sense is seen as a threat by her parents. The cage they built for their daughter has been unlocked, and their fear is as much a part of this film as Thelma’s. Trier plays with that theme early on, and revisits it with a series of flashbacks that are among the film’s most haunting moments.
Director of Photography Jakob Ihre helps set the tone with expansive shots of the remote home Thelma’s parents reside in. The blues, whites and grays of the Norway Winter are intimidating, and the numerous wide shots give the feeling of isolation to a relatively small story. There’s a loneliness to growing up, and “Thelma” captures that as well as any coming-of-age story.
The film doesn’t give any easy answers, either. Thelma doesn’t get any throughout her journey, because answers don’t come easily in adolescence; certainly not when you’re struggling against your parents. The audience doesn’t get any either. What makes “Thelma” special is its assuredness while driving to the finish line.
Perhaps most impressive is Trier’s ability to keep so many balls in the air. “Thelma” is difficult to define because it is simultaneously a love story, a coming-of-age story, a horror story and an origin story for someone with powers. It tells a tale of someone trying to break free from their parents before they know they need to, and one of a person trying to find out who they are. It’s rare for all that to come together so harmoniously; and for that, it should be celebrated.