Warning: Minor spoilers throughout:
The opening scene of “Thelma” is jarring to say the least. Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) is out hunting, joining him is his young daughter Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg). The two traverse a frozen lake, and walk into a snowy forest, in search of deer. A short time into the hunt they spot their first deer, a bit off in the distance from where they are standing. Thelma watches, as her father takes aim at the animal, but then she looks away. She doesn’t want to see the deer get killed; she’ll know it’s over, when she hears the sound of the rifle being fired. What Thelma doesn’t realize is that, as she is looking away, her father has turned his rifle back around, and is aiming it directly at the back of her head. This opening scene, is one of a number of disturbing moments that stand out in the film.
After the opening, the narrative moves forward in time; over a decade has passed. When the film resumes, a shy, teenage, Thelma, portrayed in a compelling manner by Eili Harboe (The Wave), is going off to attend her freshman year at the University of Oslo, where she will be studying biology. Her decision to attend college, away from home, is something which doesn’t sit well with Trond, or with Thelma’s mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). Thelma has been home schooled since she was a child, and, because of the isolated location of her parents’ house, has had little social interaction. Demonstrating their lack of ability to let Thelma live her life with some space, her parents have her schedule memorized, inquire as to what she is eating, and call her throughout the day, until she answers her phone. The reason for their overprotective behavior is due, in large part, to their fervent religious beliefs; a set of guiding principles for life, which they fear Thelma will stray from once she is no longer living with them.
Thelma has difficulty making the transition from her isolated upbringing to the thriving environment of college life. For the most part, she attends her classes, but does little else. One afternoon, while studying at the library, the outwardly friendly and attractive, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), sits down next to Thelma, and they have a pleasant, albeit, quick exchange. Seemingly out of nowhere, Thelma begins to feel strange sensations that begin to overwhelm her mind and body. The intense feelings coincide with the crashing of birds into the library windows. In the next moment, Thelma is writhing on the floor, in the throes of a seizure. Later on, when questioned by the examining doctor, Thelma states that she doesn’t have a history of epilepsy. A series of medical tests are conducted, which yield no specific diagnosis as to why Thelma has had a seizure. The reason for Thelma’s apparent seizure is not medical, it is, in fact, her using long dormant, psychokinetic powers, that she possesses. The powers have been kept under control by her parents since she was a small child.
A short time later, while swimming laps in the pool, Thelma is surprised to see Anja. She has come to inquire as to her well being. Thelma, has been lonely since arriving at the university. As previously mentioned, she mainly attends classes, or studies, and repeats the same process, the next day. She is touched, that someone other than her parents would care about her.
Thelma and Anja begin a friendship which takes off immediately. Anja introduces Thelma to her circle of friends, and for the first time, Thelma begins to socialize, however, due to her religious convictions, she is having a difficult time letting loose. Anja’s friends jokingly tease Thelma about refraining from alcohol and smoking.
As Thelma’s friendship with Anja continues to grow, it will not take her long to realize that her feelings extend much deeper than friendship. In fact, the more Thelma desires Anja, in a sexual manner, the more she descends into a hallucinogenic state, where, the filmmakers blur the lines between what it is real and what Thelma is imagining. I don’t want to reveal more than I have up until this point. There is a good deal to the film, that I haven’t mentioned, that I would like those of you, who want to see it, to discover on your own.
In addition to directing “Thelma,” Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) co-wrote the screenplay with Eskil Vogt (Reprise). The film premiered on August 20, 2017 at the Norwegian International Film Festival. “Thelma” is comprised of a wide array of genres: drama – fantasy – horror – mystery – romance, and thriller. In regard to the horror aspects of the film, when they do appear, they are, for the most part, psychological instead of explicit.
“Thelma” provides the viewer with a number of answers to the questions it poses during its 116 minute runtime. However, in thinking about the film, after viewing it, I felt there are at least two ways to interpret the story. In one respect, a viewer might deem the film to be about the loss of a young girl’s innocence, after Thelma breaks free from the oppressive home life she’s dealt with during her formative years. Conversely, it can also be interpreted as a coming of age film, in which Thelma’s character begins to realize her special abilities, that have always existed within her, but she was not fully cognizant of until her sexual awakening. From start to finish, “Thelma” is a dark film to be sure, but one that held my interest.