Thelma LFF film review: “exquisitely crafted depiction of oppression”

Thelma experiences mysterious convulsions in this Nordic chiller from Joachim Trier

A strict catholic upbringing leaves shy Thelma (Eli Harboe) feeling like an outsider as she embarks on her University education in Joachim Trier’s sensitively handled supernatural Nordic chiller. Trier stamps his own nuanced spin on female coming-of-age horror by introducing a refreshing and richly drawn gay character struggling with her sexuality that strikes a similar thematic chord to Stephen King’s Carrie.

It’s the first time Thelma has lived away from home and her parents check in with her daily via phone. Occasionally when she ignores the calls, she is questioned by her wheelchair bound mother but when she freely picks up she usually receives a lecture from her father. At first the calls seem harmless enough as her parents are naturally worried for her safety, but as time goes on their conversations resemble the stifling tone of an abductor speaking to a hostage. Trier fully ekes out the suspense in their relationship by withholding vital information.

When Thelma is in close proximation to class mate Anja (Kaya Wilkins) she trembles to the point of convulsions. The loss of control, fear and thrill of attraction is beautifully portrayed with this simple movement. Trier spends time building the rapport and friendship between the two young women ensuring the viewer is fully invested in their relationship. There’s a real excitement and sweetness to their interactions and an operatic splendour to their first touch and kiss. Harboe is superb in the titular role imbuing genuine pathos into her protagonist’s journey to self-acceptance. Thelma is also a pleasingly smart character who uses scientific investigation to solve the mystery of her seizures.

Thelma’s nightmares are laced with biblical metaphor and imagery which is used to startling effect in the final throes. Trier doesn’t hold back in laying down fiery retribution but he also allows Thelma to use her new-found power for good. The entire film is exquisitely crafted in its depiction of oppression and the sweet release of eventually breaking free from its grasp.