Thelma is a tricky film. It would be easy to dismiss it as a Norwegian Carrie, but to do so belittles director Joachim Trier‘s film as a simple imitator. It’s undeniable, however, that Thelma bears a passing resemblance to the DePalma classic; it’s the story of a girl who has been raised in a strict Christian household, presided over by authoritarian parents, who finds freedom – and horror – in her first love affair. The film complicates the narrative by making Thelma (Eili Harboe)’s love interest a girl, Anja (Okay Kaya), and it is in this element that results in Trier’s most interesting – and problematic – ideas.
It’s clear from the opening scene that something is amiss in Thelma’s home life. The young girl and her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) share a moment that immediately establishes their relationship: he’s so afraid of her that he contemplates killing her. The rest of the film follows Thelma, now an adult, as she leaves home for the first time to attend Biology at the University in Oslo. She goes to class, studies, swims at the pool, but has difficulty making connections to other people. It’s in the library, after first spotting Anja, that she has her first seizure, an event that coincides with a flock of birds striking the window. The incident is unnerving and Trier uses it to create a visual connection between Thelma’s loss of control and the supernatural.
For genre fans, this is familiar territory. The question is not if Thelma will go off, but when and how bad will it be? Trier, however, distinguishes his film from Carrie by aligning Thelma’s power to her burgeoning lesbian desires. As she and Anja grow closer, so too do the frequency of her attacks, which Trier shoots like strobe light attacks.
It’s clear that Thelma’s struggles with her sexuality are directly related to her religious bringing. The screenplay repeatedly reinforces her slow descent into vice and how this clashes with her beliefs about drinking, drugs and her desire for Anja, which she ineffectually tries to pray away. Events come to a head in two different encounters: one is a thrilling sequence at a contemporary dance performance that nearly brings the roof down and another is a humiliating incident at a house party that makes wonderfully creepy and sensual use of Biblical imagery. In the aftermath, it becomes clear just how powerful Thelma is, a discovery that drives her home to her father and mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) where the truth behind the opening scene is revealed.
The truth, however, is far less surprising than the build-up and even casual viewers should have no problem anticipating what’s to come. Problematically, Thelma’s confrontation with her father revises everything about her relationship with Anja in a way that feels, at best, dismissive and, at worst, mildly homophobic. While it’s liberating to see Thelma move away from the Christian/telekinesis dichotomy of Carrie, Trier’s attempt to explore sexuality is mildly emblematic of a straight white male’s idea of queer identity.
Aside from the slightly draggy final act and the problematic gender politics, Thelma has a lot going for it. Trier uses his special effects sparingly (to great effect) and he has a keen eye for visually dynamic shots. He also knows how to frame moments of intimacy, focusing on the slight touch of Thelma and Anya’s hands. Both women are fantastic in their roles, particularly Harboe who manages to convey innocence, sexiness, and vulnerability all at once. Despite its issues, Thelma is well worth seeking out.