Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Thelma" Goes to Dark Places

After watching so many superhero films and shows recently about young people with supernatural powers, I'd gotten used to the portrayal of them in very lighthearted, positive terms. So I was caught off guard completely by the Norwegian horror thriller "Thelma," which spins the darkest, most chilling story about a telekinetic girl that I've ever seen.

Eili Harboe plays Thelma, newly off to college and having some trouble making friends. Her strict religious parents, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are very controlling, and Thelma is reluctant to tell them when she starts experiencing unexplained seizures and strange visions. Objects move and lights are affected by her presence in this state. She also doesn't mention that she's falling in love with a classmate, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), whose attentions seem to trigger Thelma's attacks.

Initially I was going to pair up this review with Julia Ducournau's "Raw," which is also about exploring the maturation of a young woman at college through the lens of genre cinema. However, "Raw" didn't get under my skin the way that "Thelma" did, or leave me genuinely conflicted about what had transpired. And though I liked "Raw," it's not nearly as strong a piece of cinema as "Thelma." It doesn't have the same psychological gulfs or absorbing visuals. Director Joachim Trier made a trio of very intimate contemporary dramas before this, films that I appreciated, but didn't really connect with. Here, he's trying his hand at more stylized imagery, including quite a bit of CGI-aided special effects work. And it's stunning to look at, full of deep shadows, ominously flickering lights, and frozen winter landscapes.

Likewise, the performances are excellent. Eili Harboe is wonderful as Thelma, particularly in the scenes where she's in turmoil, struggling for control. She has the ability to be vulnerable and likable one moment, and then utterly frightening the next while hardly changing her expression. Some of her best scenes are the phone conversations, where you can see Thelma weighing how much to tell her parents, and not quite being able to hide her real emotions. I also enjoyed Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen, especially as their characters reveal more dimensions as the film goes on. Rafaelson remains so subtly menacing throughout the whole film, even when he's at his most paternal. At the same time, it's clear why Thelma loves and trusts him, up until the point where they inevitably must clash.

"Thelma" has been described in some of the marketing as a lesbian love story, and this isn't inaccurate. There are some fantastic early scenes built around Thelma and Anja's relationship, particularly a trip to the theater that literally almost brings down the house. However, it is also a film about faith and morality and terror, both immediate and existential. I found Thelma's complex interactions with her parents far more compelling than any of her fairly run-of-the-mill sexual awakening encounters with Anja. It's Trond and Unni who have to grapple with Thelma's powers and afflictions in the most painful terms. There are significant sections of the film where they are positioned as the protagonists, and it's left ambiguous as to whether Thelma or her parents are ultimately more deserving of our sympathies.

I'll caution that the film goes into territory that I wasn't expecting, and gets very dark very quickly. We move from Thelma slowly starting to break the rules and flex her independence at school, which is fun and amusing, to the anxiety of the exam table as she tries to uncover the cause of her seizures, to some of the most deeply upsetting and traumatic things I've seen on film, lurking in Thelma's past and subconscious (and I watched Aronofsky's "mother!" this year). I'll also caution that "Thelma" has deep roots in arthouse film, much like Robert Eggers' "The Witch," and is full of coded symbolism and unanswered questions.

So approach with care. However, the film had its intended effect, and I found "Thelma" to be the best version of the female coming-of-age through supernatural crisis films I've ever seen. It's not as iconic as "Carrie," but I haven't been able to get its nightmare visions out of my head, or shake the chill that it's left in my bones.

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