Thelma’s greatest creation is Thelma.
Thelma (Eili Harboe), the character, is comprised of some of cinema and real life’s most enduring archetypes: the very lonely girl.
Thelma is a college student from a small town in Norway now studying biology at a University in Oslo and doing very little else. She attends her classes. She comes back to her tiny apartment. She cooks an unsatisfying meal. She answers a phone call from her incredibly intrusive and needy parents. She goes to bed. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Thelma is a ghost roaming the halls of her school, posting up at the library and nervously looking around as if waiting for someone with the shining to have the capacity to notice her. When someone finally does, the beautiful and alluring Anja (Kaya Wilkins) she responds by having a massive seizure, falling off her chair in the library and pissing her pants. Smooth move, Thelma.
Thelma is a wonderful character and Thelma’s best asset because her sense of isolation is so profound and so real. The sense of arriving at college or any other new life-shifting paradigm and immediately feeling disconnected and removed should be familiar to many of us, including let’s just say hypothetically speaking, people who write TV and movie reviews for a living.
In Thelma’s case, the isolation is even worse as it’s accompanied by her oppressive parents. Instead of an exciting portal to a new social life, Thelma’s iPhone is a ticking time bomb. At any moment her parents could just “check in” to see how things are going. They’re extremely religious and Thelma has picked up on bits of their lifestyle. She prays frequently and doesn’t drink. On the rare occasion that she interacts with another human being, they’re full of intrusive questions about her religiosity. Which is kind of funny because Oslo’s version of “excessively pious” might as well be Karl Marx to U.S. audiences.
Still it all adds to her sense of isolation. And sometimes that sense of isolation can become so profound that it feels like only the work of the supernatural can rectify it. In Thelma it does.
Thelma is the fourth feature film from ascending Norwegian writer and director Joachim Trier. Aesthetically, it’s horribly beautiful, although it’s hard to tell if that’s due to a strong directorial eye or just the sweeping majesty of Norway’s icy landscape. Thelma does indeed look quite a bit like the most famous Scandinavian horror/romance film American audiences are likely to be familiar with: Let the Right One In. Regardless of his unfair Scandinavian landscape advantage, Trier clearly knows exactly what to do with his camera – pulling it high over Oslo to help establish Thelma’s sense of isolation or letting it focus tightly on her face as she endures distressing medical tests to find the cause of her seizures.
Thelma almost always looks intriguing and the character as embodied by Harboe is perfect. The first 40 minutes or so that cover the beginning of Anja and Thelma’s relationship are just spectacular. The actresses have remarkable chemistry and there is a sensuality to their scenes together that is rare for any romantic film, let alone a sci-fi/horror hybrid like this. The two develop a friendship that suddenly begins to generate sexual tension. Oftentimes, movies within the sci-fi/horror genre will forego the trouble of creating believable relationships for its characters in the interest of getting right to the carnage. In Thelma’s case, however, the relationship is the carnage.
Yes, the supernatural does eventually come to rescue (or destroy?) Thelma. Soon, we come to realize that weird events tend to coincide with her seizures like crows flying into window panes, dreams about snakes, and people seemingly being summoned from out of nowhere. But the real supernatural event at play is that Anja would recognize that Thelma is suffering and actually offer to help.
The comparisons to Carrie here are inescapable. Both films feature young female leads going through a difficult period in their young lives who just happen to harbor previously undiscovered supernatural abilities. For Carrie White that supernatural ability could charitably be described as “maximum telekinetic bloody murder overdrive.” For Thelma it’s…not quite as clear.
Trier and company eventually offer a definitive explanation for the strange events surrounding Thelma and thematically, while admittedly interesting and thinkpiece-worthy – it’s just not logically satisfying. Something about Thelma’s power is stuck in a no man’s land of sci-fi plots where it’s not extreme enough to warrant being included in a science fiction film and not subtle enough to be filed away as a sort of allegory.
Of course I’m speaking abstractly to avoid spoilers. Just know that Thelma could have just as easily jettisoned much of its Carrie-like elements in favor of a depiction of repressed love and attraction that flourishes in its first act. And that feels sacrilegious to say. I’m of the opinion that virtually every film ever created would benefit from introducing a bit of the sci-fi and fantastical. The full revelation of these powers further hurts the middling midsection of the film that somehow simultaneously feels too expository and yet not clear enough.
Still, Thelma has Thelma. There’s a moment towards the beginning of the film when Thelma is speaking unusually frankly to her parents. She has complained to them about how an old friend from high school literally thinks the world is 6,000 years old (I told you the extreme religious right in Oslo may as well be Marxists). Thelma’s dad, Trond, doesn’t like the tone of superiority in her voice. “You talk as if you know everything,” he says. And Thelma can’t help but agree. She kind of does think she knows everything and it’s frustrating that that line of thinking has gotten her nowhere.
“It’s just when I see girls with friends and boyfriends they seem uglier than me,” she tells her father. Thelma is what Carrie White could have looked like in 2017. Raised by religious extremists and isolated from society, sure. But also studying in a STEM field and vicariously living through others’ Instagrams while her lonely brain tries to convince her she’s better than those shallow souls.
Thelma is a worthwhile endeavor for that characterization alone.
Thelma is out in theaters this Friday (November 10).