After 2016’s drama Louder Than Bombs, director Joachim Trier returns with supernatural thriller Thelma, a slow burner that’ll leave you feeling fulfilled by the time the end credits roll.
Eili Harboe stars as the title character, a quiet, conservative university student, living away from home for the first time. Painfully shy, Thelma doesn’t have any friends to call on, instead relying on regular phone conversations with her strict religious parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) to keep her company.
Over time, Thelma catches the attention of Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who welcomes her into her friendship group. While the boys try to catch her eye, Thelma struggles to take hers off of Anja, and the pair’s relationship blossoms. However, when Thelma starts having seizures and strange visions, she’s admitted to hospital, where she discovers that her family history may not be all that her parents have made it out to be, putting her life with Anja at risk.
Blending together themes of religion, sexuality, love, and mental illness, Thelma slowly but surely builds the tension, letting Harboe’s talent shine whilst using clever cinematography and near-silence to raise the stakes.
Eili’s Thelma isn’t a particularly likeable character; she presents herself as unapproachable, almost snooty, at one point having a conversation with her father about how her fellow university students are stupid and shallow, that she feels like she’s better than them. After Anja offers her friendship, and Thelma struggles to fit in with the rest of the group (brought up as a strict Christian, the smoking and drinking of her classmates makes her feel uncomfortable), we feel like she deserves this to be hard. As Anja’s relaxed influence starts to soften Thelma, we slowly sympathise with her, especially as we discover more about her controlling parents.
While the first half establishes Thelma as a character, her personality traits, and her nervousness around other people, the second half ups the ante. Trier’s repetitive use of symbolic imagery (think Old Testament snakes and death by fire) is so smartly done, so sleek and sensual. Partnered with a cool, indie soundtrack – or eerie silence, where necessary – it’s a clever, imaginative thriller, a slick take on the supernatural.
Thelma is slow to build, but worth it in the payoff. Give it a chance as you won’t be disappointed.
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