It doesn’t take Thelma (Eili Harboe), the title character in Joachim Trier’s supernatural import, long to experience the world-opening temptations of college life.
A shy, small-town girl from a cloistered religious upbringing, she arrives in Oslo for university as an egg that has yet to hatch, a character as virginal as the snow in the biting Norwegian winter. At an off-campus party, she takes a drag on her first cigarette and coughs up a lung; she tastes her first alcoholic beverage and drinks to the point of nausea. And she takes a liking to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a girl in her math class, who reciprocates the attraction. Sex, drugs and self-actualization — sounds like the social rites of passage of higher education.
Yet this is no ordinary drama of collegiate awakening; as the movie’s tagline puts it, “sometimes the most terrifying discovery is who you really are.” Thelma’s journey toward selfhood becomes increasingly studded with unsettling omens, like the blackbirds that slam onto the glass walls of the campus library the moment Anja and Thelma meet — and the seizure Thelma experiences a moment later. It will be the first of many epileptic fits this seemingly healthy teenager will endure, baffling general practitioners and specialists alike. That they always occur in the presence of Anja can’t be a coincidence, can it?
In his most visually imaginative feature to date, Trier — the auteur behind Oslo, August 31 and Reprise, among other respected titles — spelunks Thelma’s subconscious with a Freudian scalpel. Reality gives way to fantasies, which give way to nightmares. The campus pool becomes a bottomless abyss; a toke from a so-called joint (it’s only tobacco, which fools the naïve Thelma) spawns an erotic escapade with Anja that’s right out of the Zalman King playbook, only to suffer coitus interruptus by a serpent — that eternal harbinger of Biblical sin — as it slithers into Thelma’s mouth like a poison.
This traumatic introduction to adulthood will lead to Thelma’s (re)discovery of paranormal powers that had long been dormant, which has earned the movie inevitable comparisons to Carrie, that touchstone of feminist body horror. They do share similar root concerns: Like Stephen King’s high school senior, Trier’s college freshman’s telekinetic prowess burbles up from a childhood of religious extremism. Among the writer-director’s bread crumbs of backstory, we learn that Thelma’s father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), nearly scalded her hand on a fire to warn her about Hell. Eili Harboe is never better than in Thelma’s excruciating phone call with Trond, a static take in which she admits to taking her first drink — fighting back tears while enduring pitiless, judgmental silences on the other end of the phone.
Yet Thelma, which is Norway’s Academy Award submission for Best Foreign Language Film, is not a horror movie by any standard definition, which ultimately makes it more interesting. It’s not even much of a thriller — it’s a paranormal case study stitched onto a medical procedural sewn into a budding-lesbian Bildungsroman, all of which critique oppressive fundamentalism.
Thelma’s epilepsy is heartbreaking because of its foundation — as a physiological manifestation of the guilt and shame of a woman lying, as it were, with another woman.
In his review for IndieWire, David Ehrlich noted that Thelma is “like an adaptation of ‘Carrie’ as directed by Ingmar Bergman,” a great pull quote but one with which I initially disagreed: The comparison to the godfather of Scandinavian cinema is not supportable, because Trier’s visual vocabulary is not nearly as distinguished or rigorous as Bergman’s.
But thematically, nobody filmed shame, and the tortured wrestling match between God and mortal, like Bergman. Trier comes close, and that may be Thelma’s highest compliment.
THELMA. Director: Joachim Trier; Cast: Elie Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen; Distributor: The Orchard; in Norwegian with English subtitles. Opens: Friday at Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables