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Review: Thelma – “A taut, captivating and sensual trip”

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After a strong, albeit underrated, English language debut with star-studded, family drama Louder Than Bombs (2015), Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier returns to his homeland and mother tongue for his fourth feature film. With Thelma the director and his regular screenwriting partner Eskil Vogt deliver a supernatural thriller but the core narrative at the centre of this genre film is an intimate, character-driven story dealing with coming of age and family relationships. The remarkable balance between minimalistic indie filmmaking and thrilling high concept moments make Thelma feel like the most compelling “X-Men” origin story that’s never been made. 

Trier immediately establishes the scope and tone of the film, choosing the epic cinemascope format and opening with a breathtaking wide shot of a gorgeous glacial Norwegian landscape where child Thelma is being led on a hunting trip. What may look like an idyllic father-daughter bonding scene suddenly turns into an emblematic moment, establishing the nature of their relationship and foreshadowing deep dark secrets for the audience to uncover.

After the enigmatic prologue, the film flashes forward to 19 years old Thelma (Eili Harboe) now in Oslo attending university, away from the simple countryside life and especially from her intense Christian parents. She has bloomed into a beautiful and smart young woman eager to learn at school but also to explore a different lifestyle. Yet, fitting in isn’t as simple as it may seem and she feels lonely and alienated. Everyone else seems to already know each other or to have an easier time socializing but Thelma is accustomed to a sober life of Christian values and her parents don’t miss a chance to remind her that during their frequent, overbearing phone calls.

When she experiences a scary seizure episode whilst studying at the university library, the girl thinks the stress and pressure of her current situation may have gotten the best of her. Superficial medical tests show nothing worrying after all and so she goes on about her new life. She even befriends fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who was sitting next to Thelma at the library when the episode occurred and was the first one to offer help. Their friendship however soon unravels into something bigger and of course, the realization of such feelings creates more distress in our protagonist, given her upbringing.

A visit from her parents only heightens her internal conflict and so the seizures return alongside some vivid daydreams whose odd and often sexually-charged nature throw Thelma into a downward spiral of confusion and self-doubt about what’s real and imaginary, what’s right and wrong. As the past comes back to haunt her and her condition is identified as psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, Thelma realizes she might actually possess some special abilities – although the jury is out on whether they’re a blessing or a curse.

What makes this familiar tale fresh and compelling is Trier’s focus on his protagonist’s emotional journey. Newcomer Eili Harboe’s breakthrough performance is an extremely vivid portrait of her character’s tormented self-discovery. The Scandinavian actress – who eerily resembles Supergirl’s Melissa Benoist – does an outstanding job at externalizing her character’s inner conflict. Although the association between sexual awakening and special powers isn’t new, the way Trier approaches it is stylish and original and contributes to craft a level of tension that keeps you guessing until the powerful climax.

Thelma is a taut, captivating and sensual trip within the psyche of a young woman whose coming of age may seem extraordinary, given the circumstances, but it’s at the core genuinely relatable. Trier has mentioned Hitchcock, Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone and Stephen King in general as inspiration and whilst watching Thelma it’s impossible to ignore the filmmaker’s influences but also his unique ability to transport us inside the world he has created. It goes without saying that the Norwegian filmmaker is skilled and mature enough to direct bigger fare and if he winds up doing so, we can only wish him the creative control an auteur with his vision needs in order to tell a satisfying story.

Thelma is in UK cinemas now.

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