Review: Thelma

Eili Harboe in Thelma

Thelma was Norway’s submission for the Foreign Language Film Award of the 90th Annual Academy Awards. It’s received worldwide nominations for everything from acting to cinematography to directing to music. For all its glory, I don’t think it’s a mainstream film I recommend to everybody. There are spoilers ahead.

Directed by Joachim Trier, Thelma is categorized as supernatural horror. I might categorize it as a lesbian love story with supernatural leanings. Or maybe a horror story about accepting yourself for who you are while throwing off the constraints of religion.

The first 6 minutes of the film pass in silence. Young Thelma and her father go hunting. He aims his rifle at the back of her head but can’t pull the trigger.

We next see Thelma (Eili Harboe) go off to college in Oslo. She isn’t sure how to make friends. When Anja (Kaya Wilkins) smiles at her from the next study carrel, blackbirds fly into the windows. Thelma begins to shake and has a seizure.

The doctors tell her it isn’t epilepsy. They want to do further tests. Warning: Do not watch this film if you have epilepsy. It is full of flashing lights.

The next time Thelma and Anja meet, Anja is friendly. Thelma feels explicitly sexual longings for Anja, which seem to draw Anja to her. They hang out. Thelma tries alcohol, cigarettes. She lies to her parents about what she’s doing.

Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins in Thelma

Thelma and Anja share some real kisses. Thelma conjures even more sexual situations between them that are her private imaginings. However her private thoughts cause things to happen in the real world.

Thelma’s parents Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) keep very close track of her every movement. She had a strict Christian upbringing.

When the doctors investigate her seizures, she learns the grandmother she thought was dead is in a nursing home. She goes to see her. The nurse tells her that her heavily sedated grandmother thought she could make things happen – make people disappear, give herself cancer. Thelma remembers making something happen as a 6 year old that suggests she has the same abilities as her grandmother.

She’s convinced her lustful attraction to Anja is a sin. She prays for it to be taken away. While she’s in the hospital undergoing tests she has a seizure that results in the possibility of that particular sin being taken away. She’s devastated by what she thinks she’s done.

Eili Harboe and Henrik Rafaelsen Henrik Rafaelsen in Thelma

Thelma goes home. She tells her parents what’s been happening. Her father sedates her. She prays.

Through her hazy brain, she begins to think that perhaps who she is and what she wants isn’t such a sinful thing. Inexplicably, she suddenly gains control of her supernatural talents. She uses them to free herself from her parents and leave them behind.

For me, that’s where the story turned from a supernatural horror tale to an allegorical look at growing up and breaking out of religious restrictions on love.

She goes back to college. She might be happy for the first time in her life. Anja loves her just as she wants. And . . . that’s when the film turns back into a horror movie. Has Thelma been a bad seed all along, from age six? Is she now getting the love she wants because she’s calling it to her with supernatural powers?

Or yet another possible interpretation of this story. During the time Thelma was strictly religious and accepted God into her life, she did nothing supernatural or damaging to other people. Is the film saying faith in God can save you from the horror?

The film has layers of meaning, as you can gather from my multiple attempts at pinning it down. That, for me, is why it’s garnered all the awards and nominations.

This film is slow, often silent. Thelma’s supernatural abilities don’t result in much in the way of spectacular special effects. The music is often ponderous. The cinematography is sometimes distant, disconnected. Other times it’s intimate, sensual.

I thought the young woman’s slow awakening to who she was and what she was capable of was fascinating. Take a look at the trailer and see if it tickles your curiosity.

Thelma is available on Amazon Video, Hulu, YouTube, and Google Play.

1 thought on “Review: Thelma”

  1. Pingback: Recommended Foreign Language Films and TV Series - Old Ain't Dead

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