Joachim Trier’s latest, Thelma, begins with a father-daughter hunting trip in a snowy forest. The land is desolate, the couple is isolated, and from frame one trouble seems to be brewing. There is an almost supernatural foreboding that clings to the frigid winter air. Though I don’t dare spoil how this first scene ends, suffice it to say Trier sets the tone for his chilly Carrie—cum—Raw coming-of-age tale in five minutes’ time and only builds the intensity and intimacy from there.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a freshman biology student at a university in Oslo, just beginning the transition into college life. Her strict religious background keeps her from branching out at first, but when she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a beautiful, friendly freshman, Thelma begins to let her guard down. Simultaneously, Thelma starts to experience bizarre seizures and flocks of birds begin to congregate near her. As she visits doctors and undergoes epilepsy studies, Thelma discovers that she has powers with deeper roots than she first thought.
Thelma might, at first, seem like a typical coming-of-tale, and, in many ways, at a purely mechanical level, it is. But, Trier differentiates his tale of the vague supernatural and young love by positioning Thelma’s powers as a psychic manifestation of repressed emotion and the damaging psychological effects of domineering religious dogma. Unlike many films of its ilk, Thelma doesn’t use trauma as a stepping-stone or as emotional fuel for her powers. Instead, the trauma of dogmatic religious psychological abuse acts as a central prism through which Thelma’s understanding of her newfound abilities is refracted. In other words, her self-hatred isn’t a shallow way to induce retribution, but rather it muddies the way she understands the morality of giving into who she is and what she has been all along.
Thelma falls in love with her classmate, Anja. And, in many ways, this budding relationship serves as the central source of her insecurity and moral worry. Though it is clear that she deeply loves Anja and that Anja deeply loves her, this anxiety that she has about the morality—or immorality, according to her strict religious upbringing—of her relationship ends up mapping onto her anxieties about her powers. The powers she struggles to understand aren’t a simple metaphor for her budding understanding of her attraction to women. Instead, the tandem discoveries work together to heighten and complicate each other. Her anxieties about drinking with her friends provide even more fuel to the raging inferno of self-doubt and moral panic.
In one brilliant exchange, Thelma breaks down on the phone while talking to her parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) confessing that she ignored their previous calls because she was out drinking with some friends. And, though the surface-level conversation concerns her drinking habits, we sense that the conversation is multi-layered. It is not just about her being wracked with guilt over her drinking, it is also about her attraction to Anja and her inexplicable powers. In essence, it is about breaking away from her parents and forging her own identity, including embracing a suppressed identity she never could acknowledge before.
Where I do think Thelma missteps, however, is in its exploration of the Divine and the mystical. Trier will often compare lack of scientific knowledge about something to lack of proof for the Divine. I understand the intention is to bring the themes of new and befuddling bodily changes to the fore, but the way he goes about explaining the parallels leaves a lot to be desired. In one particularly inept scene, Trier uses the fact that a friend cannot explain how a cellphone works to demonstrate the illogical nature of rejecting the presence of the Divine. The problem is, the cellphone signal connection has an empirically-based reason for working, even if a young college student doesn’t know that reason. The nature of the Divine is that it requires faith, in other words, surrendering to belief even in the absence of evidence.
Regardless, between Thelma and Raw, 2017 has been a wonderfully refreshing year for coming-of-age tales. Both films refuse to give the audience any simple answers by livening up genres—horror and coming-of-age—through auteurist visions of this unique fusion of styles. If you are at all interested in unique and gorgeous horror, look no further than Thelma.
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