Sexual awakening is a powerful experience. Emotions and impulses rage past rationality, your heart flutters, your voice catches, heat pours through your body as you try to understand newfound passions and uncertain desires. And if you’ve been taught that those passions and desires are wrong or sinful, if you believe the very instincts that define you will condemn you to hell, that experience can also be utterly terrifying.
Thelma, the subtle supernatural romance from Louder than Bombs and Oslo, August 31st director Joachim Trier, dives into that terror with the story of a shy young woman who discovers her queer sexuality when she leaves behind her small town upbringing and fundamentalist parents for her freshman year of college. Raised in a strict, forbidding household, Thelma is still haunted by her parents’ control even in the big city. Her mother keeps tabs on her study schedule over the internet. They call her daily, demanding the details of her life. Thelma always answers. It’s overbearing, obsessive parenting and it’s clearly driven by fear.
Thelma may be meek and timid but there’s a power in her that terrifies even her own parents. Trier makes their terror evident from the very first scene — we meet Thelma as a child, hiking through the woods with her father on the hunt for a deer. When the target comes into view, her father steadies his rifle on the animal, and as the young Thelma watches and waits, her father turns the gun on her, aiming directly at the young girl’s head. He can’t do it. He doesn’t pull the trigger. But the intent is there, and the intent is enough to make the point. There’s something wrong with this girl, so wrong her own father thinks the world would be better without her in it.
The action of the film picks up decades later with the adult Thelma; sweet, quiet and utterly pure. She’s hungry for friends and connection in her lonely college life, but Thelma isn’t like the rest of her peers. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t smoke. And she definitely, definitely doesn’t have sex with women because she’s a good Christian girl, deeply invested in her faith. But then she meets Anja, a beautiful and charismatic coed, and she immediately starts discovering her untapped sexuality.
On a quiet day in the college library, Thelma sits down to study. Moments later, Anja sits down next to her and Thelma’s world changes forever. Birds crash into the window, Thelma begins to quake and falls into a violent epileptic seizure. She writhes and contorts, wetting herself on the library floor where Anja and their fellow students huddle around her. Some of the students are frightened and alarmed by Thelma’s fit of seizures, but it brings Thelma and Anja closer, sparking the beginning of a deep friendship that quickly blossoms into something more intimate.
Thelma experiences her newfound sexuality in waves of bliss, lust, terror, and revulsion, a constant rotation of uncertain emotions as she bucks against her biblical upbringing, lying to her parents for the first time, and finally engaging with the forbidden. This new Thelma drinks. She smokes. And she can’t stop thinking about consummating her feelings for Anja. Her doctors search for an explanation for her sudden onset of seizures, diagnosing her with “psychogenic nonepileptic seizures,” a condition that was once associated with witches. And at the same time, Thelma experiences a series inexplicable, eerie phenomenon. As she taps into her sexuality and turns away from her repressive upbringing, Thelma begins to discover the dangerous power within herself — the same power that almost led her father to kill her.
To reveal much more would do the film a disservice, though one of the film’s biggest shortcomings is how easy it is to see the beats coming before they land. Thelma returns to her quiet hometown, to the supposed safety of her childhood home, and digs deeper into her family mysteries, learning the horrifying, empowering truth of her condition. While the film’s first half is electric with a current of sensuality and romance, the second half takes a distinctly darker turn, digging into the effects of religious repression and how much Thelma’s power and potential were directed and determined by her upbringing.
Carried by a phenomenal performance from lead actress Eilie Harboe (The Wave), Thelma is a fascinating investigation into the effects of oppression and the fearsome, phenomenal power in uncovering your personal truths. It’s a nightmarish coming of age fantasy, beautifully shot and elegantly composed, boosted by Trier’s light hand for sentimentality. For his first venture into the realm of genre filmmaking, Trier holds fast to the in-depth character drama that established his filmmaking career, treating the supernatural and mundane elements of Thelma’s journey with equal respect. Ultimately, Thelma loses a bit of its punch in the final act as the momentum of the powerful first half wanes and the film ties up its mysteries in a fairly predictable fashion, but Trier’s eye for subtle horror and unflinching intimacy makes it an engrossing emotional experience through and through.
Thelma played at the 2017 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas; it will have a limited US release that starts on November 10.