Director Joachim Trier has become known for delicate, confronting films and his return to Norway is certainly a remix of that trend.
Whereas Oslo, August 31st was an intimate observation of addiction and inner conflict while Louder Than Bombs painted a fractured family following the surprise death of their wife and mother.
Thelma is a hybrid of those past two successes and a divine dive into genre filmmaking. From the cold open through the first half hour, it doesn’t seem much different from his previous work. It may be a bit more clinical but it’s no less detached from reality even once the science fiction elements creep in.
Trier has a unique sensibility to create discomfort and security simultaneously. Before being introduced by seizure-inducing title cards, the titular character is taken for a walk with her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) to kill her in the woods before he draws back his gun, without saying a word.
There’s a strange sense of comfort here shrouded in mystery. There’s no reason given why her father may want to kill his six-year-old daughter but it’s a seed planted early on just as his decision to draw back tells us there’s more to Thelma than we could ever realize.
Following the title cards, Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg) now in university studying biology. Just as she’s interested in understanding how the world works, so is Trier in how Thelma operates and what makes her special but not how she came to be, it’s only her actions that matter- let her origin just exist.
The defining trait of Thelma is her great faith. Born into a family of devout Christians, she’s even hesitant to drink wine and her lonely values in school leave her isolated until she meets Anja (Okay Kaya), a girl she’s inexplicably drawn toward besides her need to have a friend.
Anja fills the void Thelma’s been missing, someone able to pull her out of her shell and try new things spurred by a night at a club. They smoke, drink, and if it wasn’t clear by now with Thelma’s latent behavior, fall in love too.
It’s an all too common trope in modern coming of age stories: Innocent girl falls in love with a rebel. But Trier slowly reveals the attraction may not be mutual, only influenced by Thelma’s supernatural ability, an ability to create and take away at will if she so desires.
Her baby brother’s crying? The mere thought he should stop and he vanishes. Trond is too controlling? He stops and lets her continue a new lifestyle because Thelma wills it to be.
Thelma’s equal parts unholy and holy, the ultimate paradox her upbringing taught her. It’s only once she starts having these “unnatural” feelings for Anja and subsequent seizures that she starts understanding own faith and herself.
For all of its supernatural elements, Thelma remains remarkably grounded as it tills the depths of the contradictions of faith and self-discovery. That’s largely due to Trier’s guiding hand using visual foreshadowing and callbacks. It’s a true exhibition of understanding visual language to guide the story and create deeper meaning.
Unfortunately, as a Scandinavian production, some of the symbolism will be lost on most audiences. Biblical motifs are clearly marked as are its self-references but there’s more beneath the surface that’d be uncovered with reference to Norwegian culture.
Still, the real star is Eltervåg in the leading role, playing such a confused and complexing character with the right blend of repentance and innocence- a real marvel. The scenes her father forces her to pray for forgiveness are a true highlight as are the repressed moments Thelma and Anja share.
A complex view of faith and righteousness in the modern world, Thelma should be studied for years to come.