You might not see a more stunning film in 2017 than Director Joachim Trier’s Thelma, Norway’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It tonally combines the unbridled happiness of a coming-of-age/first love film with the creepy stillness and angularity of arthouse horror. And aesthetically it unleashes sequences that will inevitably play silently on repeat at the hippest bar you can think of once Thelma hits a streaming service.
With all that beauty, it’s a shame the film seems so reductive at first—forbidden love and a cursed child; a body horror like Carrie but set in Europe. Luckily, that impression proves to be as window dressing-y as the title character’s minimalist Nordic dorm room. With a dash of the supernatural and a mystery that ultimately reveals answers by excluding explanation, Thelma offers more depth (and fun) than the clichés of its film blurb would lead you to believe.
Go to college, see the world
Shy Thelma leaves her religious, conservative family in small-town Norway to pursue university in vibrant Oslo. The lifestyle proves to be quite different. Kids drink and go out late, they try weed and stuff. Accordingly, Thelma doesn’t seem to be connecting much if at all at first (but you’re making new friends on Facebook, her dad encourages). Worse, one day early in the semester, she suffers a very public and sudden seizure in the library. Her parents already ask her daily for every little detail (Mom overlooks nothing: what’s for dinner? Isn’t your next class tomorrow, what are you doing tonight?). This isn’t a welcome development.
But as Thelma begins to deal with her peculiar seizures (doctors can’t seem to nail down the cause or condition), her luck meeting people changes. A young woman named Anja approaches her in the natatorium to check on Thelma after witnessing what happened in the library. Thelma later sees Anja out at a café, and soon she’s being invited to hang out with Anja’s group.
But there’s something about Anja. When Thelma notices her as a new Instagram follower during another library session, the lights nearby start flickering. When they come across each other on the quad one night, the same thing happens to the street lights… before Thelma again seizes. Anja stays over that night to keep an eye on her new friend, and Thelma wakes up in the middle of the night to realize she may be feeling more than friendship. But as their relationship starts evolving, Thelma has to battle the impulses of her upbringing alongside whatever supernatural seizures seem to be accompanying her new feelings.
Not your average cursed kid
Thelma initially presents itself as a familiar cursed child film, the kind where a good-in-nature parent has to help their demon-stricken kid exorcise the evil from their world (The Exorcist, The Omen, etc.). Thelma’s seizures have no neurological basis, and her father seems like a man of faith who prescribes to the generic playbook (ask God for forgiveness, maintain morals, etc.) while being willing to stretch it slightly for his daughter. When Thelma calls home sobbing in order to admit she’s been sampling alcohol (among other campus activities), he surprisingly brushes it off. “You need to make your own experiences,” he says. “Just don’t lose touch with who you are, but don’t worry about it. I’m glad you told me.”
But Thelma slowly and artfully reveals its twist on this familiar format by cleverly tying present-day happenings to an unsettling but initially bizarre opening scene. Dad, for instance, maybe subscribes too stringently to faith. When Thelma has her parents out to university for dinner, she brings up how a classmate’s ma and pa continually rail against evolution.
“A little knowledge doesn’t make us better than others… How did life come to be where there was no life? Do you know?” Dad scolds her. “You talk as if you know everything.” Later, over late night wine with Anja, Thelma reveals an instance of too-intense-faith from her childhood: Dad once held her hand over a candle until it nearly burned while saying, “Remember, this is what it’s like in hell all the time.”
Accordingly, the tensest and most gutting moments in Thelma have nothing to do with her inexplicable powers. Watching Thelma sob or slam her head against a wall and pray for her thoughts to go away is heartbreaking, and watching her rigid parents encourage their daughter to over-medicate or deny her feelings proves downright horrifying.
Thelma’s “curse” ultimately seems to be rooted there—she may genuinely have supernatural powers or happenings impacting her life, but her parents’ way of dealing with change or trouble (strict adherence to faith) proves more problematic. As a child, Thelma’s supernatural anger seemed to make its targets disappear, and her dad’s solution was to make her find God/pray constantly/live a holy life. He tries to implement the same routine when collegiate Thelma runs into issues, but she’s self-aware enough to push back this time: “Why can’t I just be who I am?”
Thelma is ultimately a high-art reflection on finding who you are even if it’s different from who you thought. And if you can embrace reality—whether that’s in reference to sexuality, science, or supernatural abilities—you stand a better chance of happy endings in this world.
Thelma first hit theaters in late October and expanded its run on November 24. Director Joachim Trier told Pacific Standard that Netflix has rights to distribute it globally (and has screened it in places like Russia and the Middle East), but no streaming date has been made public yet. Theaters where the film is currently playing can be found on its website.
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