You may not see a more beautiful film in 2017 than director Joachim Trier Thelma, the Norwegian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. It tonally combines the unbridled happiness of a coming-of-age/first love film with the eerie silence and angularity of arthouse horror. And aesthetically it unleashes sequences that will inevitably play silently on repetition in the hippest bar you can ever imagine Thelma hits a streaming service.
With all that beauty, it’s a shame the film seems so reductive at first – forbidden love and a cursed child; a body horror like career but in Europe. Fortunately, that impression turns out to be just like the minimalistic Scandinavian dorm of the title character. With a touch of the supernatural and a mystery that finally reveals answers by excluding explanations, Thelma offers more depth (and fun) than the clichés of his movie blub would lead you to believe.
Go to university, see the world
Shy Thelma leaves her religious, conservative family in tiny Norway to study in bustling Oslo. The lifestyle turns out to be quite different. Kids drink and go out late, they try weed and stuff. Accordingly, Thelma doesn’t seem to be in much contact at first (but you make new friends on Facebook, her dad encourages). Worse, one day early in the semester, she has a very public and sudden attack in the library. Her parents are already asking her every day about every little detail (Mommy doesn’t overlook anything: what’s for dinner? Isn’t your next class tomorrow, what are you doing tonight?). This is not a welcome development.
But when Thelma begins to deal with her peculiar seizures (doctors can’t figure out the cause or condition), her happiness at meeting people changes. A young woman named Anja approaches her at the natatorium to check on Thelma after witnessing what happened in the library. Thelma later sees Anja in a cafe and soon she is invited to hang out with Anja’s group.
But there is something about Anja. When Thelma spots her as a new Instagram follower during another library session, the lights nearby begin to flicker. When they bump into each other on the quad one night, the same thing happens to the streetlights… before Thelma grabs again. Anja stays that night to keep an eye on her new boyfriend, and Thelma wakes up in the middle of the night to realize she may be feeling more than friendship. But as their relationship begins to evolve, Thelma must battle the impulses of her upbringing, in addition to the supernatural attacks that seem to accompany her newfound feelings.
Not your average cursed kid
Thelma initially presents itself as a well-known cursed children’s movie, the kind in which a good-natured parent must help their demon-infested child drive evil from their world (The exorcist, the omen, etc.). Thelma’s seizures have no neurological basis, and her father seems like a man of faith who dictates the general playbook (asking God for forgiveness, maintaining morals, etc.) while willing to stretch it a little for his daughter. When Thelma calls home sobbing to admit she’s tasted alcohol (among other campus activities), he surprisingly waves it off. “You have to create your own experiences,” he says. “Just don’t lose touch with who you are, but don’t worry about it. I’m glad you told me.”
But Thelma slowly and artfully, he reveals his spin on this familiar format by cleverly linking contemporary events to a disturbing but initially bizarre opening scene. Dad, for example, might subscribe at strict to faith. When Thelma has her parents out to college for dinner, she brings up how a classmate’s father and mother are constantly rebelling against evolution.
“A little knowledge doesn’t make us better than others… How did life arise where there was no life? Do you know?” Papa berates her. “You talk as if you know everything.” Later, over a glass of wine with Anja, Thelma reveals an example of too intense faith from her childhood: Father once held her hand over a candle until it nearly burned saying, “Remember, that’s the way it is in hell all the time.”
Accordingly, the most exciting and tearing moments in Thelma have nothing to do with her inexplicable powers. It’s heartbreaking to watch Thelma sob or bang her head against a wall and pray for her thoughts to go away, and it’s downright horrifying to see her inflexible parents encourage their daughter to take too much medicine or deny her feelings.
Thelma’s “curse” ultimately seems to be rooted there – she may actually have supernatural powers or events affecting her life, but her parents’ way of coping with change or problems (strict fidelity to faith) proves more problematic. As a child, Thelma’s supernatural anger seemed to make her goals disappear, and her father’s solution was to let her find God/pray constantly/live a holy life. He tries to implement the same routine when colleague Thelma runs into problems, but she is self-conscious enough to push back this time: “Why can’t I just be who I am?”
Thelma is ultimately a high-art reflection on finding who you are, even if it’s different from who you thought. And if you can embrace reality — whether that be a reference to sexuality, science, or supernatural abilities — you’re more likely to have a happy ending in this world.
Thelma first hit theaters in late October and extended its run on November 24. Director Joachim Trier said: Pacific Standard that Netflix has the rights to distribute it worldwide (and has shown it in places like Russia and the Middle East), but no streaming date has yet been made public. Theaters where the film is currently showing can be found on the website.