There are few films that affect viewers so deeply that they linger with them long after the credits have rolled. “Thelma,” a Norwegian supernatural thriller from award- winning director Joachim Trier, is one such film. The titular character (Eili Harboe) is an introverted college student who comes to Oslo for her freshmen year. She falls in love with a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), but begins to have seizures related to supernatural powers that are triggered by her emotions. Thelma’s parents are overprotective, and they force her to abide by a strict religious life which conflicts with her new powers and emotions.
At a glance, “Thelma” can come across as a flashy horror thriller that trades plot for shocking imagery. The use of supernatural elements definitely enhances the overall story, but the film is really a venture into the discovery of one’s sexual identity and the rejection of religious influence. At its core, “Thelma” is a coming-of-age story. The main character has grown up with a thick veil shielding her from the truth about her powers and childhood trauma, but as she begins to experience new feelings about her sexuality in college, she reclaims her identity from her controlling parents.
Trier’s narrative is beautifully complex as he distorts perceptions of religion, sexuality and family throughout the movie. From the opening scene, a seed of doubt is planted and only grows to consume the viewer’s mind as the story progresses. Thelma and the viewer undergo this wild yet slow journey hand in hand; for most of the film, Trier makes the audience feel as if it were in Thelma’s shoes. With this unsettling journey comes a fair share of scares. Instead of resorting to contrived jump scares, the horror aspects are approached from a psychological standpoint, using abstract hallucinatory sequences, a slow pace and a slew of scenes of Thelma dealing with her growing powers to stir up suspense. Ola Fløttum’s score is both wondrous and haunting, providing every scene with a strange layer, helping the scenes break boundaries.
As suspenseful and mystical as “Thelma” gets, it is anchored by a plethora of strong performances. The leads are relative newcomers: Wilkins, better known for her music career, has incredible chemistry with Harboe, who handles Thelma’s journey of self-discovery with nuance, beautifully portraying the anxiety, guilt and doubt of coming to terms with who she is. Her parents, portrayed by Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Petersen, are in a constant state of conflict, harboring trauma from Thelma’s childhood years yet incessantly controlling their daughter so that she can get better. Thelma has a much stronger relationship with her father, and it is tested throughout the film.
Ultimately, Trier crafted a fantastic thriller with striking visuals and dark themes that pose questions on religion and sexuality, all the while offering a slow burn story filled with astounding performances and an eerie score. After watching it, one will never be able to forget “Thelma.”
“Thelma” opens at the Angelika Film Center at 18 W. Houston St. on Friday, Nov. 10.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 6 print edition. Email Guru Ramanathan at [email protected]