The sexual awakening of a shy young woman raised according to fundamentalist religious beliefs seemingly sparks telekinetic abilities she struggles to understand and control in Joachim Trier's latest, which follows the director's Norwegian breakout, Oslo, August 31st, and his 2015 English-language debut, Louder Than Bombs. While that plot description could fit another film named for its female protagonist, the Brian De Palma classic Carrie, Thelma is less interested in supernatural horror than in contemplating the effects of an oppressive religious environment on personal development and the challenges of taking control of one's destiny.
Chosen as Norway's submission in the foreign-language Oscar race, the movie's sustained intensity might be too muted for conventional genre fans. But its intelligent, measured tone and elegant visual style will find admirers for the Orchard release following its launch at the Toronto and New York festivals, as will its original take on the coming-out drama.
The opening sequence, photographed by Jakob Ihre in bold widescreen compositions, is a visual stunner that immediately draws you in, its ominous tone fortified by Ola Flottum's lush, brooding score. A father and his six-year-old daughter walk across a frozen lake in snowbound rural Norway. She gazes at fish swimming beneath the ice before they proceed into the woods, where he lines up a deer in the sights of his hunting rifle and then turns the gun on the girl, unable to fire. The reasons for that near-filicide will become clear only in the movie's climactic scenes.
The action jumps forward to the freshman year of Thelma (Eili Harboe) at college in Oslo, where her stern father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and wheelchair-using mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) anxiously keep tabs on her by phone. Her mother even tracks her class schedule online, questioning her about any variations.
During a visit to deliver furniture, tension poisons the family's lunch at a restaurant when Trond rebukes his daughter for thinking herself intellectually superior to others back home. Thelma's nervous glance at a gay couple at another table further suggests her fear of her moralistic parents' judgment. She says nothing to them about a seizure she had in the study hall, which coincided with blackbirds smashing into the windows.
Despite this disorienting experience, lonely Thelma blossoms amid the newfound freedoms of campus life, striking up a friendship with Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who witnessed the library incident. But when Anja abruptly drops her boyfriend and begins showing signs of sexual attraction to Thelma — in a wonderfully Hitchcockian, emotionally charged sequence at the ballet — guilt and confusion cause Thelma to freak out. Sinister images of snakes invade her subconscious as she prays to be cleansed of impure thoughts. But the seizures worsen, and when confronted with worrying discoveries from further medical tests, she heads home to uncover the roots of her trauma and the frightening extent of her powers.
Trier's previous films have shown an acute affinity for examining damaged lives, scarred by loss, isolation and mutual incomprehension, territory in which he seems most at home here in a screenplay written with his usual collaborator Eskil Vogt. While the more enigmatic supernatural elements at times veer close to formulaic Hollywood horror tropes, the movie maintains a compelling seriousness, particularly in its consideration of the conflict between sexuality and repression. Although it's far more ambiguous about its genre leanings than, say, Tomas Alfredson's terrific Let the Right One In, the mix of naturalistic Scandinavian sobriety and psychological texture with dark, fairy-tale elements is similarly distinctive.
Performances across the board are assured, maintaining tight control in the shifts between Thelma's fears and those of her parents. However, the movie owes much of its unsettling command to the suggestive power of Ihre's camerawork, notably in his skilled use of wildlife and water imagery, and insidious overhead angles that invite heightened scrutiny.
Distributor: The Orchard
Production companies: Motlys, in association with Film Vast, Le Pacte, Snowglobe, Copenhagen Film Fund, Filmpool Nord, B-Reel, Don’t Look Now
Cast: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervag, Oskar Pask, Steiner Klouman Hallert
Director: Joachim Trier
Screenwriters: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
Producer: Thomas Robsahm
Executive producers: Sigve Endresen, Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
Director of photography: Jakob Ihre
Production designer: Roger Rosenberg
Music: Ola Flottum
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutte
Casting: Yngvill Kolset Haga
Sales: Memento International
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)