“Thelma”, which was chosen as Norway’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is a calm but unsettling experience. Firmly sticking to its young heroine’s increasingly agitated state of mind, the movie constantly unnerves us throughout its running time, and there are a number of striking scenes generated from its compelling mix of coming-of-age drama and supernatural thriller.
After the disturbing opening scene which shows a father attempting to kill his little daughter in the middle of a snowy winter forest but then changing his mind, we meet Thelma (Elie Harboe), who was, as you can easily guess, that small girl in the opening scene. Several years passed, and now she becomes a young woman who begins her first year at a college located in Oslo after leaving her rural hometown, but she often feels lonely and awkward as trying to get accustomed to her new environment. She wants to have more freedom like any girls around her age, but, as a shy, repressed lass who has grown up in a conservative Christian household, she is afraid of committing anything against her religious faith, and her routine phone conversation with her parents always reminds her of what she must avoid for being a good Christian.
Her parents, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), seem kind and caring like any good parents, but we cannot help but notice the tension between them and their daughter when they visit their daughter at one point. During their dinner at a Chinese restaurant, Thelma happens to express her critical opinion on several conservative families in her hometown, and, not so surprisingly, her parents are not so pleased about that. Trond sternly represses his daughter’s opinion as emphasizing the importance of faith, and Unni, who has been wheelchair-bound for some reason, silently agrees with her husband.
Trond and Unni sincerely want their daughter to remain to be a good Christian girl, but the inevitable change in Thelma’s life has already been beginning since she came across Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Freely exuding her beauty and sexuality, Anja is far more confident and uninhibited than Thelma, and she is willing to befriend Thelma although their brief first encounter was not exactly pleasant due to Thelma’s sudden inexplicable seizure.
As spending more time with Anja, Thelma experiences more fun and freedom than before, and she also finds herself attracted to Anja – especially after she happens to learn that Anja recently breaks up with her boyfriend. It soon turns out that Anja also feels attracted to her, but Thelma feels guilty as being more aware of her good old Christian values, and this accordingly brings more turmoil into her mind. She experiences more incidents of inexplicable seizure, and very strange things happen around her in addition to that.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Thelma has a sort of supernatural power and her parents knew about it from the very beginning. As she tries to understand what is happening to her, the movie occasionally goes back to her childhood past, and we get a quiet but chilling moment when young Thelma unwittingly causes a devastating incident for her family on one day.
While her situation will surely remind you of several similar horror films such as, yes, “Carrie” (1976), the movie distinguishes itself with its distinctive mood and style. Steadily increasing its palpable sense of dread and spookiness, it gives us a series of intense and disturbing moments which effectively present not only Thelma’s psychological tumults and but also their external ramifications, and I particularly like a hallucinogenic scene where Thelma happens to have an odd experience at a party she attends along with Anja. She cannot help but swept by what has been repressed inside her for years, but then she also feels quite inhibited by her faith, and this growing inner conflict of hers leads to a serious incident which puts more guilt upon her.
As approaching to its eventual narrative point along with its heroine, the movie further dials up its level of tension, and director Joachim Trier, who wrote the screenplay with his usual collaborator Eskil Vogt, deftly draws the engaging performances from his main cast members. Eili Harboe is convincing in her character’s gradual development along the plot, and she is simply captivating as her character is inexorably hurled into uncharted emotional territories later in the story. While Kaya Wilkins imbues her rather functional character with life and personality, Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen are solid in their respective supporting roles, and I especially appreciate how their characters are depicted with considerable sympathy and understanding.
In my inconsequential opinion, “Thelma” could be more impactful, but I was impressed enough by its mood, acting, and storytelling at least, and this is certainly another successful work from Trier. I do not like his debut feature film “Reprise” (2006) a lot, but I was quite touched by the quiet but harrowing drama of “Oslo, August 31st” (2011), and I also liked “Louder than Bombs” (2015), a small but thoughtful family drama film which was incidentally his first English language film. “Thelma” may disappoint you if you expect something as explosive as “Carrie”, but this is still an engaging piece of work nonetheless, and you may admire its achievement as much as me.