Ominous portents abound from the first moments of Joachim Trier’s Thelma: the film opens with the unsettling sight of a man pointing a hunting rifle at his daughter’s head. The man doesn’t pull the trigger, and whatever compelled him to consider doing so is left unexplained. In the next moment, the daughter is a young adult in Oslo, located in a high overhead shot of a crowded plaza that steadily zooms in, evoking a sense of creeping paranoia. Trier leans so heavily on recognized thriller-genre conventions in the early stretch of Thelma that the quiet, observant style of his Oslo, August 31st seems a world away; the amplified gusts of wind and droning synths that fill the soundtrack, the birds that collide suddenly and loudly with plate-glass windows, and non sequitur flashes of snakes slithering through grass and across skin threaten to suffocate Thelma before even its midway point. But once Trier settles into the story of Thelma herself (Eili Harboe), a sheltered biology student struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation as well as intense and seemingly inexplicable seizures, a sense of interiority returns. Thelma strikes up a friendship with a classmate named Anja (charismatic newcomer Kaya Wilkins) that quickly grows intimate, stirring longings with the repressed Thelma that trigger her seizures, along with outbursts of uncontrollable telekinetic force. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt are firmly in Carrie territory here, paralleling a young woman’s awareness of her sexuality with the manifestation of her supernatural abilities. And Thelma even makes explicit the religious nature of her repression, though Trier and Vogt are far more measured in their treatment of Thelma’s parents: her devout father (Henrik Rafelsen) and disabled mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are not Bible-thumping lunatics but people attempting to repress trauma themselves (the nature of which becomes clear in a lengthy, late-film flashback).
Trier’s forays into genre and allegory do not necessarily mesh with his characteristically evenhanded approach, and withholding crucial aspects of Thelma’s backstory for so long makes much of the film feel like its treading water. There’s also an ill-advised sequence that presents a medical diagnosis for Thelma’s condition by way of putting Wikipedia pages and a Google image search on the screen, suggesting that Trier is simply unsure of how to artfully convey so much information to an audience. (Perhaps that’s why he seems so much more assured handling a comparatively spare narrative like Oslo.) But the director has an extraordinary sensitivity with actors, and what works most in Thelma is Harboe’s performance, which grounds the ambiguities of Vogt and Trier’s screenplay in an emotional credibility. Harboe and Wilkins have a lovely and natural chemistry together, and the moments in which Trier stays most closely attuned to their tentative romance are by far the film’s most affecting. A pile-up of postponed revelations drags out Thelma‘s finale (and unleashes some expected telekinetic destruction), but ultimately Trier trades Carrie’s bloody retribution for a moving grace note of forgiveness, an earthbound homecoming for a director somewhat lost amidst the supernatural.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 1.