Shortly after starting at a big-city university, a shy and intelligent young woman, Thelma (Eili Harboe), begins to experience abrupt changes in her body and mind. These range from sudden epileptic seizures to nightmares of snakes coiling around bodies. Her devout Christian parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) worry that she is betraying their values and slipping further from salvation. At the same time, Thelma develops a crush on a classmate, Anja (Okay Kaya). As Thelma tries to suppress the memories of her upbringing and her sexual feelings for Anja intensify, she starts to emit the powers she has been locking away since childhood.
Imagine what a character-driven X-Men spin-off would look like, if shot with a tiny budget and resembling a Norwegian chamber drama, and you would have something like Thelma. The latest film from director Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st), co-written with Eskil Vogt, is at its best when it assumes the perspective of its powerful protagonist. Harboe is flinty yet possesses a disarming vulnerability as a woman who has tried to block out her abilities but also deal with their reemergence. Restricted to her subjectivity, we realize the strain she bears and the toll it takes on her psychological development.
Trier sometimes struggles with dialogue – especially since his images suggest much more than words than confirm. It is also much more fascinating to discover Thelma’s past and psyche through Harboe’s eyes rather than in unnecessary exposition. Meanwhile, a few special effects-heavy sequences are overly indulgent, and do not align perfectly with the film’s silence and sense of suggestion. However, except for these few exceptions, Trier has a masterful control over narrative structure and creating suspense.
Is Thelma essential viewing?
Yes. Aside from a few dull patches and some forced dialogue, Thelma is a frightening, often astonishing, superbly acted drama.