Released: 3rd November 2017
Directed By: Joachim Trier
Starring: Elli Harboe
Reviewed By: Scott Bates
Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s films are often down to earth, realistic stories about everyday people and the problems they face – a family who’ve lost their war photographer mother in Louder Than Bombs, a recovering drug addict leaving his treatment centre in Oslo, August 31st, etc. His latest feature, Thelma, takes a different path, telling the story of a young woman whose long-hidden telekinetic powers come to the fore when she falls in love for the first time.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) comes from a strict religious family who’ve sheltered and heavily medicated her to keep her telekinetic abilities in check following a devastating incident when she was a young child. Now starting university, Thelma is out on her own in the world for the first time and soon finds herself developing feelings for a fellow classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). With the pangs of first love come the return of Thelma’s otherworldly powers, which soon prove a threat to her relationships with both Anja and her protective parents.
Whilst a lot of films – especially US studio productions – would get into the supernatural elements of the story on, Thelma is much more of a slow burn, taking its time to introduce us to its protagonist and only occasionally hinting that something may be wrong with her – an early seizure in the library is the first time we see anything out of the ordinary. The flashback opening sequence, in which a younger Thelma and her father head into the woods to hunt suggests something sinister, but we don’t find out what – or why – until later on. Thelma’s seizure brings her to the attention of Anja, who introduces herself when the two see each other at the pool. Their relationship develops slowly and sensitively, their mutual attraction feels very genuine and Harboe and Wilkins (primarily a musician) have great chemistry – it’s no surprise they became good friends during the shoot.
Harboe, whose previous roles have been mostly in small Norwegian indies, is a genuine revelation, endearing us to Thelma and later making us almost fear her – this is, after all, a role that requires her to both fall in love and make a man spontaneously combust. She has the kind of face that’s able to show and hide emotion equally well, which comes in especially useful as events progress. Behind the camera, Trier (who co-wrote the film with Eskil Vogt) displays a real flair for tense, atmospheric scenes – while the film isn’t quite a horror, it does occasionally head into such territory, particularly in scenes involving snakes, a swimming pool and a frozen lake which provide genuine scares.
That said, the film certainly isn’t overly-reliant on its more supernatural elements, even as they become more prominent in the story. Trier’s background in intimate, character-focused work serves well here, Thelma’s relationships with her parents and Anja being the driving forces behind the narrative throughout. The suggestion that religion can be used to repress uncomfortable truths is not fully explored, but touched upon just enough to create an impression – have Thelma’s parents turned to religion hoping it’ll save their daughter?
A less-conventional approach towards both a coming-of-age story and a supernatural thriller, Thelma is the kind of genuinely original film that we don’t really see enough of – Trier mixes the two genres to great effect, resulting in a thrilling and thoughtful drama that’s an engrossing, rewarding watch.