A woman begins to fall in love, only to discover that she has fantastic powers.
After his U.S. debut, the subtle indie drama “Louder Than Bombs,” Norwegian director Joachim Trier returned to his motherland to make the unnerving art-house horror “Thelma.” The same issues that plagued Trier’s 2016 film now seem to invade this one. At the end of my “Louder Than Bombs” review I wrote, “With his next feature, I hope the director scales back and focuses more on exploring one or two subjects, as opposed to twenty.” He tackles quite a lot of subjects in “Thelma,” yet another take on a demonic teenager – not all of them fleshed out, but endlessly fascinating nevertheless.
The opening scene is masterfully staged. A father takes his young daughter hunting. They walk over a large frozen lake, deep in the wilderness, with fish gazing up at them from underneath the ice. Deep in the woods, they encounter a young deer. Dad aims his rifle at the animal, then slowly shifts it to his daughter, who is too entranced by the deer to notice. Spoiler alert: after a sustained moment of suspense, the father can’t go through with it. What would make a father attempt to murder his own daughter? That thought will linger with you throughout the rest of the film.
A decade or so later, Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a somewhat-reclusive college student, studying chemistry in a remote Norwegian town. Shaped by her rigid Christian upbringing, she lives by herself, finding solace in swimming. Thelma is sad because she feels superior to most. “When I see girls with friends and boyfriends,” she confides, “they seem uglier than me.”
Odd things begin to happen. Thelma has a violent seizure in a classroom, as birds smash against its large windows. Unable to determine the cause, the doctors advise Thelma to contact home, yet she doesn’t want her uber-religious parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen, both excellent) to know about the incident. She has lucid fantasies, dreams of snakes crawling over wrinkled throats, and throws up a lot. Tests rules out brain tumors or epilepsy, yet reveal an early addiction to a powerful anti-seizure drug.
In the meantime, Thelma meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins) at the indoor swimming pool she frequents. There is an instant spark. They meet at a bar, where they share secrets, then a club, where they share Thelma’s first-ever alcoholic drinks, then a rooftop, where they share Thelma’s first-ever cigarette, and eventually the theater – with Anja’s mother in tow – where the girls’ hands and lips interlock during an ethereal ballet. Thelma begs God for forgiveness, for she has sinned.
Yet sin she does, with more alcohol consumed, and her first (pseudo) marijuana experience turning into a hallucinatory, snake-infested make-out session with Anja. A series of intense flashbacks, involving a baby, reveals Thelma’s Terrible Secret. The film morphs into a genre piece, a “Carrie”-esque tale (fiery finale and all) of adolescent rebellion, involving telepathy, hereditary superpowers and/or a possible possession – all wrapped under the guise of a coming of age tale about a young girl overcoming her religious background and discovering herself.
As such, the film works wonders, steadily building tension, its lead protagonist carrying us even through its uneven patches. Eli Harboe is a bona fide star. We see the guilt she feels when doing something she’s been raised to think of as “wrong”; we feel every twinge of pain during her seizures; she even makes us relate to the somewhat-horrendous act she performs towards the end, using her, um, powers.
Kudos must go out to Joachim Trier, who paints a dark allegory with vibrant, confident strokes, helped greatly by his cinematographer Jakob Ihre. His lingering lens captures frigid landscapes, apocalyptic flocks of birds circling grey skies and psychedelic snakes straight out of the Bible, but its true achievement is capturing every nuance of Harboe’s performance, from the moment she’s singled out in a square of busy people, to the final shot of her, in the same square, though not quite alone this time.
Trier fills “Thelma” with such mirroring imagery, its reflections slightly off or just plain twisted. An insightful conversation between Thelma and her parents during one of their visits, touching upon religion and acceptance – with Thelma quickly being shut down for expressing her beliefs – is mirrored later, when Thelma defends her family’s faith to her friends over drinks (her being non-alcoholic). A nightmarish “trapped in a swimming pool” sequence mirrors that “fish gazing up through the ice” opening shot. In this way, the film reflects Thelma’s own duality of identity, her revelatory present mirroring her dark past, Thelma’s twisted notion of herself mirroring her actual self. Trier also twists our expectations: what starts off as a tender love affair, rather quickly culminates in a passionate kiss and a strand of hair, caught in a window. Thelma’s initial, earnest prayer, is later closely observed by her father, sitting inches behind her as she expresses her anger at him, head against the wall.
There is a lot to juggle here, and Trier does lose grasp. Hefty themes of nature vs. nurture, leaving behind a religious upbringing, unleashing restrained desire (at times manifested in violence), and a parental quandary that’s up there with the one in the final scenes of this year’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” in terms of its ambition, grisliness, and ludicrousness, wedge themselves in-between a deeply sympathetic love story and horror tropes, such as reptiles entering human orifices. It all gels, but barely. Had he stripped the film down a bit, it would’ve made for a much more effective and chilling character study. As it stands, the film walks a razor-thin line between artistic and silly.
In its desire to combine the mundane with the fantastical, art-house with accessible mainstream fare, “Thelma” is also very much in the vein of Tomas Alfredson’s snowy, cold masterpiece “Let the Right One In” or this year’s powerful, succinct, “cannibal coming of age” drama “Raw.” Definitely worth seeing for its ambition and central performance, its cinematography and unexpected detours, as well as Ola Fløttum’s deeply unsettling soundtrack, “Thelma” is as conflicted and torn as its titular character.
Now playing in select theaters