Starring Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Directed by Joachim Trier
Defining horror can sometimes be a very tricky business. We all know of movies like Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, The Witch, and other titles that walk in a very gray area, causing people to question what genre it most easily and categorically falls into. These are the films that often spur the most discussion, the ones that stick with us the longest because they are so intriguing and captivating. We can now add Joachim Trier’s romance/horror film Thelma to that list.
The movie follows Thelma (Harboe), a young woman who comes from a rather strict, religious upbringing. We are introduced to her as she attends university, where her timidity is matched only by her loneliness. One day, while studying amongst other students, she meets Anja (Wilkins) only to have a seizure within moments of this chance encounter. The two stay connected and ultimately fall in love, although Thelma is torn over her emotions and her faith. This sets off a chain of events in which Thelma begins to realize she has strange, uncontrollable powers.
Now, while this sounds like a superpower movie, it’s nothing at all like that. Thelma is a slow yet deliciously paced film that never explodes into some shocking finale. Rather, everything about the film is done in such a way that we’re meant to appreciate the construction of every scene, delighting in Ola Fløttum’s beautiful synth-y score, and marveling at the gorgeous cinematography from Jakob Ihre.
Furthermore, all of this is there to service the characters and their magnificent performances. Harboe shines as Thelma, a young woman whose guilt over her sexual and romantic feelings send take her from the throes of passion and love to the devastating depths of sin. Wilkins also excels in the role of Anja, her eyes capturing the pain of wanting to love Thelma but glistening with empathetic pain as she sees her going through this inner struggle.
While the film takes its time allowing Thelma to open up and come to terms with her lesbian identity, it isn’t done through means of sexual tension. The times when she’s with Anja, when their friendship is budding, are instead laden with romantic tension. The viewer isn’t meant to want to see some sort of physical consummation but rather an emotional one. Thelma has clearly denied herself the opportunities to experience all that life has to offer, so seeing her with Anja should – and for this reviewer does – make the audience want her to experience love outside of familial obligation, which is the only other relationship we see her have.
Her relationship with her family is, much like many young adults, strained as Thelma seeks to find her own identity. Still, she has near daily calls with her father, with whom she tells everything, and her mother, who she is obviously uncomfortable speaking with. As the film unfolds, we see the reason for this friction and it’s nothing short of tragic.
Thelma’s “sins” create great conflict within her and she fights against her nature with every fiber of her being. This turmoil only exacerbates and increases the frequency of her seizures, each of which seems to come right as something mysteriously goes her way. This power is both a blessing and a curse, as Thelma comes to learn when she digs deeper into the nature of her seizures to try and find out why doctors can’t identify what’s wrong with her.
Thelma never tries to say that religion is wrong nor does it try to say that LGBTQ relationships are undeniably pure. What it is saying is that contentious matters can affect us greatly and that there are never easy answers. We can’t expect to snap our fingers and solve our issues. Even if we could, the results might be more horrific than we ever expected and finding a way to live with those consequences will be a different but equally difficult challenge of its own.
For those who are seeking a true horror experience, you will be left frustrated and disappointed. But for those of you who appreciate when horror is more than blood, carnage, and violence, Thelma is horror viewed through a lens of poetry.