The latest film from Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier features something I’ve never seen in a movie before – a disclaimer that the film contains scenes of strobing lights that may cause seizures for those with epilepsy. Some are calling Thelma a horror film, though that’s a bit of a misnomer as this is much more in the vein of psychic thriller with slow burn tendencies. In some regards it could be said that Thelma is Norway’s Carrie, a psychic tale weaved into an unusual coming-of-age story audaciously presented as it withholds information to build its subdued tension.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) has just left her home in the rural parts of Norway to attend college. She’s a shy outcast who has trouble fitting in with her peers. Thelma maintains her Christian faith which is not universally understood by her peers on campus. Each day, though, Thelma is sure to talk to her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and father (Henrik Rafaelsen), the two parents are overbearing and concerned about their daughter living away from home. While studying one day, Thelma has a horrific seizure in the library in plain view of her fellow students. After recovering and withholding the information from her parents, Thelma returns to campus and meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who lends a sympathetic ear to the lonely girl. Soon Thelma finds herself infatuated with Anja, and their friendship escalates into something more than just friendship. However, Thelma is still plagued by these mysterious seizures that aren’t simply diagnosed by known medical science. The seizures are part of a mysterious past and closely guarded family secret.
Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt do an excellent job in establishing the film’s central conceit while slowly dispensing information that unravels the mystery at the heart of Thelma. If you can defy expectations and enjoy the ride for what it is, Thelma is an engrossing drama that leans on some coming-of-age tropes while simultaneously traversing in the world of the supernatural without becoming generic horror. As the film builds, there are answers that only bring forth more questions until it culminates in a series of shocking reveals and ugly twists. Like he did in his last film, the English language drama Louder than Bombs, Trier adds depth to the story through flashbacks but never leans too heavily on past events to give away everything happening in the present, leading to a slow burn construction that is subtly unsettling and wholly engrossing.
In the eponymous role of Thelma is Eili Harboe, who gives a breakout performance that gives Thelma all of its narrative gravity. Though an alluring young woman, Harboe plays Thelma as someone entirely unsure of herself. Thelma is a character who if she were certain of herself worth could be the belle of the ball, but Harboe brings this apprehension and uneasiness to the character that you can easily see why she eludes the gaze of male suitors, not that she’s exactly seeking their attention. So much of Thelma the character is relying on an internal struggle that Harboe is able to bring to the surface without uttering a word of dialogue, an inner-torment of the unknown that is palpable to the audience.
Look, a Norwegian slow burn psychological thriller isn’t exactly going to be a crowd-pleaser. Joachim Trier crafts one hell of a thriller with Thelma, one that never subjects its audience to jump scares. Instead, Thelma is like a madcap mixture of Black Swan and the aforementioned Carrie. Trier is more concerned with creating a mystery that builds an everlasting sense of unease in the viewer, a sense that is there early on and never fades throughout. Thelma is a film that is truly haunting, just not in the way that most people would expect.