Out hunting with his little blonde daughter in the forest, there’s a deer in his sights, and his gun is at the ready. But instead bearded Trond, standing behind the little girl, briefly but deliberately turns away from the deer and points the gun directly at the back of her head. What is he? And what is she?
If much of Thelma sounds familiar – a teenage girl, extreme religiosity, lesbian experiences, sexual fantasies, inexplicably smashing windows, squawking birds and a snake – then don’t worry, we aren’t quite in teenage horror queen territory here. There’s no mention of periods for a start, which is often a catalyst for as much fake blood a director can drench their sets with.
There are elements of psychological thriller and supernatural horror, but more interesting and more important is who or what is causing this turmoil around Thelma (Eilie Harboe), by now 18 and starting at university many miles but only an iPhone call away from her obsessive parents. Just who should we be rooting for? “A little knowledge doesn’t make us better than others” her father Trond warns ominously, but what that means changes like the icy wind.
And in a movie where the central protagonist is from a family with such binary ideas of good and evil it is rather as if a huge joke is being played on us by director Joachim Trier, that the characters themselves appear to be anything but. Questions of culpability, responsibility and motive are hard to answer and then hard to shake off, especially as flashbacks to Thelma’s childhood leave us as unanchored as she turns out to be.
The extraordinary changes and experiences we go through as teenagers – particularly over love, or even better, lust – are familiar tropes, but in Thelma’s emotional awakening there’s also a layer of horror as her move away from home triggers psychic abilities best kept suppressed, along with memories of tragedy and fear. With a family background of devout Christianity, a taciturn father and a mother in a wheelchair, Thelma has led a sheltered life. Naturally her parents respond by trying to hold her ever tighter, which makes Thelma’s increasingly bizarre psychological responses look like a primal attempt to push back.
Finding fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins) is a catalyst for opening herself up to new experiences (smoking, drinking, the odd spliff) and they soon fall in love, drawn to each other in ways neither understands. In fact it is on Thelma’s first meeting with Anja, when they sit next to each other in the university library, that Thelma experiences her first seizure, that leaves her juddering on the floor.
Is it epilepsy? Doctors keep asking for her medical and family history, about which she knows very little, asking Thelma as many probing questions as Thelma’s mother does in her phone calls, which arrive with increasing frequency if Thelma doesn’t answer.
There is certainly something odd about Thelma’s parents, though to be honest there is about most parents (hi mum!). They cannot let go, checking her timetable to ensure she has no excuse not to answer when they call, and monitoring new Facebook friends.
Their obsessive knowledge of her university life is troubling and at first I presumed this was due to their terror that she would lose her faith when exposed to the ways of the flesh and the evils of the university library. But actually I’m not convinced that we ever have any evidence that Thelma’s father Trond is, or was, religious, though her mother is devout, and Thelma too. (I will confess to a natural sympathy for Thelma’s dad even when he’s being horrible, as you all know what bearded 40+ actors in chunky sweaters do to me.)
Thelma is difficult to place in time and space. She has the look of an Amish girl in her rather drab blue dress, mousy hair in a demure bun, though I could be projecting that she’s aiming for modesty (the rest of the time she’s in the student uniform of jeans, tee and hoodie). It might simply be that like lots of skinny beautiful teens she does granny chic well (at my age, if I dress like that people either assume I’m trying to convert them or try to sell me a tartan-patterned shopping trolley).
Her relationship with Anja is jarring. There’s an instant attraction but their relationship goes against everything Thelma believes about herself and the world, though it also promises escape and freedom. Because being trapped is a theme here, though who is trapped, and how, like everything in this story, shifts. Fish under the ice in the lake outside her home; her mother in a wheelchair; Anja as Thelma’s powers grow; Thelma undergoing hospital tests; and other scenes, more claustrophobic or upsetting.
Harboe’s face conveys extraordinary vulnerability combined with age-old steely determination. At times her skin almost has a sepia quality to it, and later when Thelma finds old photos online of women suffering from the same type of seizures she does, reclining exhausted, arms flung back, she fits right in, with that mix of agency and enervated futility. But when she’s having tests in hospital she’s covered in electrodes, a white cap on her head, a pony tail of coloured wires trailing, a visitor from the future where women with psychologically-induced seizures aren’t burnt as witches as they were in the past.
Thelma is actually, for the first half anyway, a remarkably quiet film. That’s not to say nothing happens. A sense of unanchored weirdness grows, from which direction we are never entirely sure, and the second half is exciting and horrifying as family histories are uncovered and quiet rage wreaks havoc. I genuinely had no idea how her story would pan out (it’s also a film that’s hard to review without spoiling it for you and despite my website title, I do actually want you to go and see it).
And that name. In the UK Thelma is an old, old lady name, of the kind that we assume will never come back into fashion (which means it probably will when we’ve exhausted ourselves with Lilys and Beatties and Matildas). Is it popular in Scandinavia? Or maybe her family favours older, more old fashioned names to further separate themselves? So I googled and it means… will, or volition.