Fantastic Fest 2017: THELMA – Passion and Piety Collide in this Telekinetic Tale

A man hunting a deer aims his gun at his young daughter standing alongside him. She’s unaware of this danger, and survives due to her father’s change of heart. We skip ahead over a decade as Thelma heads off to college. The reasons for why a parent might be driven to consider such an act form the backbone of the new film from writer-director Joachim Trier. It’s an effort that blends his previously demonstrated ability to craft a moving drama (Louder than Bombs and Oslo, August 31) and blend it with genre elements.

After a sheltered upbringing under the yoke of her religious parents, Thelma (Eili Harboe) leaves behind her home town to begin a new chapter of her life at University in Oslo. An introvert, she finds it hard to settle and make connections, her parents continuing to exert influence and control from afar until one day when she encounters fellow student Anja (Okay Kaya) in the library. Their encounter sparks a dramatic seizure, one that coincides with a flock of birds crashing into the windows of the building. After she recovers, the pair begin a friendship, one that begins to break down the strict boundaries she has been set. As she gets closer to Anja, the conflict within Thelma increases, as do the seizures and the unusual events that accompany them. She is soon forced to confront her parents and her past, to understand the true nature of her abilities, and the danger she poses to those around her.

A sexual awakening, parental pressure in the form of religious zealotry, and a manifestation of dangerous telekinetic abilities. It all sounds like a page out of the Carrie playbook, but Trier’s effort is more nuanced and less melodramatic. It’s a coming of age tale, or more accurately a tragedy, while telling a beautifully wrought love story.

The journey Thelma takes in the film is one that explores the extent of her repression, both of her emotional urges and her abilities. A spirit battered into submission by religion is reawakened as her feelings for Anja develop, making for a ongoing collision of her passion and piety. Eili Harboe brings the required coldness to her character, restrained but hinting at the conflict beneath, while Okay Kaya’s Anja serves as a counterpoint, outgoing and warm. It’s genuinely joyful to see Thelma lower her guard as their relationship develops. Much of the foundation and understanding of what troubles Thelma comes from the contributions of Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen as her father Trond and mother Unni. It is their presence and actions that carefully layer in the psychological abuse/control that is slathered upon their daughter.

Trier does indulge some of the genre elements you’d expect, leaning on religious symbology that manifests with some heavy handed but effective imagery. A snake making an appearance during a sexual sequencing is the most memorable. Despite this occasional flourish, the director practices much restraint, and the film is all the more interesting for it. A cool and clinical approach makes these happenings all the more stark and unreal. The feel of the film is greatly enhanced by the work of cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who draws from stunning Norwegian vistas. An opening scene of Thelma and her father walking across a frozen lake that seems like it could crack at any moment is an encapsulation of the film as a whole. Beautiful, but fragile. Calm. and yet danger could strike at any moment. This is tone enhanced by an exquisite score from Ola Flottum.

While some may prefer a more bombastic approach to their genre fare, Trier’s cerebral take allows a more nuanced tale. He shows a deft grasp of the genre, using supernatural themes to explore his ideas without letting them take over. He ends with a final shot that opens up a continuation of Thelma’s abuse and themes of control. Exactly what has been learned on this journey of self-discovery? It reinforces how deep and layered Trier’s effort is. An icy visage of a film and character, cool and smooth on the surface, but with danger lurking in the depths below, Thelma leaves you with a chill, one that permeates to the bones and will take time to shake off.

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