There’s a proud tradition in genre films of using the supernatural as a metaphor for the horrors of adolescence. Traversing that strange no-man’s-land between childhood and adulthood is a real-world horror show in its own right, full of strange discoveries, odd awakenings, and the slow, dawning realization that our childhood identities may not be our final identities. There’s an inevitable loss of control plus the terror of the unknown wrapped up together. This is an almost irresistible target for a storyteller trying to get under an audience’s skin.
Those ideas are clearly on the mind of Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier with his latest film Thelma. The story of a young college student who begins to realize she has strange, telekinetic powers, Thelma is a quietly beautiful film, mixing moody, evocative imagery and a series of nuanced performances into a sort of arthouse take on Stephen King’s Firestarter. But Trier isn’t just interested in echoing the horrors of growing up; he’s equally eager to highlight the power of self-actualization and independence, resulting in a thriller that’s scary, sad, and ultimately triumphant.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a young woman headed off to college in Oslo, a move that has her overprotective, devoutly religious parents nervous. Her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and wheelchair-bound mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) check in with her endlessly in nightly phone calls, where they drop passive-aggressive reminders that she shouldn’t let college life corrupt her. Then one day in the library, Thelma is struck by what at first appears to be an epileptic seizure — an event that just so happens to coincide with dozens of birds slamming themselves against the library windows.
Thelma begins seeing a series of doctors to have her condition analyzed while at school, and she begins falling in love with another woman, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Those feelings, along with the normal college antics of parties and drinking, conflict directly with Thelma’s upbringing, and she’s torn between her overprotective parents and the person she’s growing up to be. But as Thelma continues to investigate the ongoing seizures, she discovers they are tied to telekinetic abilities that make her shockingly powerful.
Just as a plot summary, Thelma reads like an X-Men spinoff or superhero origin story. But it’s about as far away from those kind of blockbusters as you can get. Thelma displays supernatural ability, but Trier is interested in the human consequences: what it feels like for a young college student to suddenly have her already-overbearing parents visit her after a seizure, or the sheer, unfathomable terror of knowing something is different inside your brain, without having any way of understanding it. For the protagonist, having incredible powers isn’t exciting. It’s harrowing and lonely, and it isolates Thelma from those around her, just at the moment she’s most eager to fit in.
Director of photography Jakob Ihre underscores this dynamic with moody, widescreen visuals. Thelma pivots between the remote, snowy Norwegian landscape where Thelma’s parents live, and her more cozy college confines. But visually, the film is striking throughout, with Ihre and Trier using the wide framing to give a small, personal story a real sense of scale. Several dream sequences evoke Thelma’s internal struggle through bold, dark imagery and hissing snakes, while a test for her seizure disorder almost feels transcendent: flashing strobe lights first create a sense of anxiety in the audience, before steadily slowing into a kind of visual poetry. (Somewhat ironically for a film about a character struggling with seizures, the strobe sequences have earned it a warning label, which suggests anyone with photosensitive epilepsy avoid the movie.)
While Thelma pulls from a lot of familiar sources and tropes, tonally it is able to stake out its own intriguing ground. The film is scary at times, and there are moments that are downright horrifying. (One scene involving an infant has been stuck in my brain ever since I saw the movie.) But the film is also earnest and grounded about the way it treats college life and Thelma’s struggle to understand the seizures she’s suffering from. It’s heartbreaking at times: when Thelma tries too hard to fit in at a college party, the sequence is just as gut-wrenching as some of the movie’s more horrific reveals.
Taken alone, these are all wonderful elements, though disparate. What brings them together in Thelma is Eili Harboe’s lead performance. She is both vulnerable and adamant; terrified, yet resilient. Thelma genuinely struggles with her attraction to Anja, which triggers several of her seizures. But the interplay between the two actors also effortlessly captures the sense of idyllic discovery that we associate with first loves. It’s not a particularly flashy performance, but that’s what makes it so powerful. As portrayed by Harboe, Thelma is just an awkward, ordinary girl — and that relatability is what makes her story of discovery so resonant.
But like The Witch before it, Thelma is also about the outright terror that some people feel when confronted by a woman with true agency and self-awareness. Here, the framing is with Thelma’s parents and her supernatural powers: they want her abilities to stay dormant, and will do almost anything to keep her from taking confident control. Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt couch their undermining of her seamlessly within the narrative — it’s an expertly crafted script — but the larger themes at play are impossible to ignore. Thelma’s mother and father simply aren’t prepared to see her become a fully realized woman, particularly not one with a firm grip on her powers.
It all feels primed for a dark, miserable ending where everybody loses. (It’s not hard to see the DNA of Stephen King’s Carrie in the movie.) But that’s apparently a little too pat for Trier, as well. Just as Thelma focuses on the human consequences of its lead character learning about her supernatural powers, the film also zeroes in on the human consequences of her accepting she has those powers — and what difficult choices she must make because of them. Depending on where the audience stands, Thelma can be seen either as a self-empowered adult, a relentless monster, or even the hapless victim of otherworldly forces. Perhaps she’s a combination of all three, but either way, there are no clear, easy moral takeaways, just shades of gray. That may be the most subversive aspect of Trier’s superhero movie riff. With no broad, comic book-y definitions of right and wrong to fall back on, the film instead leaves the audience to ponder the choices we all make, and the lasting, rippling impact those decisions have on those around us.
Thelma is now playing in limited release.