Thelma (Eili Harboe) isn’t taking to university as well as everyone else around her. Presumably home-schooled by her smothering parents, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), Thelma has trouble relating to the people around her, and their rituals of socialization. She doesn’t drink. She doesn’t even talk much, except for when addressed first. She’s prone to seizures, triggered by seemingly nothing; her hands twitch, and then an entire arm, and soon she’s lost in a fugue of sensory overload. But when she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a much friendlier classmate, Thelma experiences something else. Something she hasn’t before. Something that could have grave consequences if she loses control of herself.
Thelma, Joachim Trier‘s study of Thelma at a severe crossroads in her life, hardly paints in subtle brushstrokes. Whether it’s touching on a burgeoning sexual awakening or a young adult’s painful separation from her repressive upbringing, the film speaks to the horrors of late maturation in explicit ways. That’s meant in more than one sense, but some of the film’s most unnerving material emerges through implication. Trier begins with the image of Trond escorting a much younger Thelma through the woods, under the auspices of deer hunting, only to briefly turn his rifle on his daughter. It’s hardly the last unhealthy thing Trond does out of a delusional sense of “protecting” Thelma, but it’s a particularly haunting example of the broken world into which the shy young woman was born.
Trier frames a number of scenes from a bracing remove, slowly honing in on Thelma as the crowd around her disappears, and can protect her no longer. Much of the film operates deliberately in this same way, mostly focusing on her daily rituals as her placid existence is increasingly upset. Her mother calls her every day, and panics if she doesn’t promptly reply. Her biology degree is causing her more grief. She feels isolated from her peers, even as she notes to her father that she feels superior to many of them in ways she can’t begin to comprehend. That’s to say nothing of the fits, or how they happen to manifest most often when Anja is near. After all, Thelma can’t seem to stop looking at her new friend’s pictures. Sometimes, when she gets intent enough on them, the lights begin to flicker. Jet-black snakes appear to her in hallucinations. Something is changing, and it’s directly tied to forces buried deep within Thelma. What those are is somewhat left to interpretation, however.
Harboe is onscreen in nearly every frame of Trier’s film, and she does affecting work as the sort of young woman who’s every bit as excited as she is terrified by the shifts in her personality and desires, even as she grapples with her parents’ overwhelming fear of her. She and Trond have an unusually close relationship, her exposing her every inner thought and secret to him like a parishoner confessing endlessly before an unforgiving god. He tells her at one point, after learning that she’s had her first alcoholic drinks, “just make sure you don’t lose touch with who you are,” and it feels more like a threat than an offering of parental comfort. Where the film’s photography goes broader, Trier consistently boxes Harboe into close quarters, her constantly bound by everything within herself that she struggles to understand.
Through this motif, the director finds moments of quiet horror, externalizing Thelma’s turmoil in ways both blunt and memorably disturbing. One hallucination involves Thelma going into a seizure in the middle of a swim, and drowning as she scrapes against a second wall of concrete blocking her exit. In another, she enters into a flight of ecstasy during a house party, and Trier shifts tones from erotic reverie to the cruelty of humiliation at whiplash-inducing speed. Much of Thelma lingers over the fear within silences, and while it’s a kind of horror storytelling that certainly won’t be for all audiences, those who prefer their thrillers muted will find much to admire. If it’s a patient film, it’s one with a number of bracing revelations throughout. As Thelma unfolds, and severely interrogates the antiquated notion of “female hysteria,” the film grapples with how frequently pain and even madness are visited upon the unwilling.
At times, the film’s photography takes on a slightly less admirable bent; particularly when it’s Thelma’s sexuality left up to question, Trier aims for the sensuously picturesque, and whether that’s authentic to the characters or a bit of indulgence in the male gaze is certainly up for discussion. Regardless, the film maintains a hum of stoic, nerve-trembling anxiety that carries through to its finale. Yet in its resolution, Thelma affirms what so many troubled people have come to understand in reality over time. There’s no going back and undoing what was, but there can still be hope for the future as long as you have it within yourself to endure through the worst of it. If you make it.