Those familiar with Julia Ducourneau’s 2016 cannibal caper Raw will see some parallels between that and this award-winning Norwegian drama from Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs). Like Justine in Raw, the eponymous Thelma is a young woman who has moved away from home for the first time to attend university and, whilst she doesn’t gorge on the flesh of her classmates, her behaviour is somewhat disturbing nonetheless in that she endures a series of violent seizures and cosmic disturbances that stem from suppressed childhood memories and are, it seems, linked to her burgeoning sexuality. In the lead role, the exquisite Eili Harboe is exceptionally good as a shy young woman uprooted from her devout overly-protective parents to study in Oslo. Trier, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eskil Voigt, has put the disappointment of his Hollywood foray behind him to deliver something that is somewhat disquieting, yet utterly riveting from beginning to end.
Perhaps like many students who have made the move away from home for the first time, Thelma is lonely during those first weeks of college, a situation that is only exacerbated by the fact that her parents – Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Petersen) – are constantly checking up on her online, whether it be monitoring her class schedule or tracking her movements and interactions via social media, behaviour that only serves to intensify Thelma’s feelings of unease. One of the things Thelma becomes most anxious about is the suspicion that she is gay, a circumstance that is at odds with the expectations and beliefs that have been drilled into her by Trond and Unni. Immediately upon meeting fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins), Thelma succumbs to a seizure, the first of several that she suffers as she finds herself becoming more entrenched in the temptations of university life. As part of Anja’s social circle, Thelma indulges in things she has never done before, such as dancing in a nightclub, consuming alcohol and daring to ignore her parent’s phone calls.
Seemingly overwhelmed by these new freedoms and her attraction to Anja, her seizures continue to manifest and Thelma submits to a series of medical tests in a bid to ascertain the cause of the episodes and the trance-like psychic state that seem to be a summoning of past traumas, which we learn more about through a series of flashbacks that shed light on – among other things – how Unni came to be wheelchair bound. Reminiscent of Carrie, this is a coming-of-age story in which the constraints of parental and religious control bring about the psychological deterioration of a young woman at the hands of a zealot parent(s). There are numerous creepy moments, not the least of which is a naked and sedated Thelma being bathed by her father. Birds and snakes feature prominently in the dream-like visions that Thelma experiences and, whilst the final showdown between her and Trond in the middle of a lake is shocking, it ultimately brings the liberation that Thelma needs.
Flashbacks to Thelma’s childhood slowly unravel the events of the past, but Trier uses these sparingly and very effectively, just enough to tell us something isn’t quite right without revealing everything too early and it actually takes quite a while before we realise exactly what the disturbing pre-title sequence that opens the film is all about. Scenes often play out slowly but are never boring, while the cinematography and editing deliver striking imagery without relying on jump frights or gore. Ultimately, Thelma is about taking control of your destiny, ridding yourself of the shackles that bind you and finding your place in the world. So good is Harboe in the lead and the chemistry between she and Wilkins that Trier could have easily jettisoned much of the supernatural element to present a more straightforward depiction of repressed love and still delivered something special. It is not surprising to learn that Thelma is Norway’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards because this is a remarkably accomplished film that fascinates and resonates long after the curtain closes.