There’s a description for Thelma that goes something like: a Norwegian teenage lesbian coming-of-age horror story. I’ll be honest and tell you those descriptors were in my head when I decided to screen Thelma. It hits a lot of my personal interests: Scandinavian cinema, horror cinema, queer cinema. I love those things. Smoosh them together into a film directed by Joachim Trier and I’m eager to get my hands on it. And while that description is not really wrong, it undersells the value of Thelma vastly. Yes, Thelma is a young woman, finding herself, for good and bad, in the world. Yes, it’s a stark Norwegian thriller with a queer center, and a horror vibe. But for some reason, those words strung together fail to encapsulate the rich, frightening experience of watching Thelma.
Thelma opens on a frozen lake. It’s a Norwegian film, so the shot feels appropriate. Two people, a man and his young daughter, look at the fish swimming beneath the ice, and the fish, it seems, look back at them. The two are going hunting, and the when the man has a clear look at a deer, he instead turns his rifle on the girl. He contemplates the shot, but does not take it. We don’t know why he thought about killing her. We only know that he doesn’t, and thus Thelma lives.
Thelma then flashes forward, and the remainder of the film takes place at university. Writer/Director Joachim Trier winds together two different tracks in Thelma’s coming-of-age. The first is Thelma’s experiences as a normal college freshman student. It’s her first time living apart from her strict conservative Christian parents. Like most kids on their own for the first time, Thelma (Eile Harboe) slowly tries new things. She drinks her first beer. She smokes her first cigarette. She meets boys; they treat her badly. She calls her parents, sad and homesick, who encourage her to make friends. And she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a woman with whom Thelma connects immediately, and romantically. A lesbian relationship is decidedly against her religious upbringing, and Thelma prays to God to have her attraction removed from her mind. God doesn’t help her, though, and her relationship with Anja grows.
The other element of Thelma’s life that Trier explores is more unsettling, and difficult to describe in a review. It starts with seizures that begin shortly after she arrives as school. The episodes bring Thelma to various doctors, and in these visits Thelma learns of a family past that she does not remember. The doctors think she might have epilepsy, but viewers see that something else is happening. That something is perhaps natural, perhaps supernatural; perhaps good; perhaps evil. I won’t say anymore here, but the key to Thelma’s seizures is the key to the film. Trier, every a crafty director, withholds and controls those details of Thelma’s life in a manner that is both masterful and simple, and leaves audiences wondering just who it is that has come of age.
–Christopher Zumski Finke