By Jim Slotek
To wit: troubled girl from an oppressively-religious family feels the flush of young-adulthood and begins displaying telekinetic powers, resulting in eventual carnage.
But where Brian De Palma wielded a gleefully morbid sledgehammer, director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) approaches the story with reserve and a slow burn, and no small amount of the Scandinavian secret-sauce, melancholy.
Which is not to say that Thelma is ever boring. The movie opens unsettlingly with a young Thelma and her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) hunting deer in the snow, with dad, ever so briefly, putting his daughter’s head in his rifle sight. There is a family secret here that shadows everything that subsequently happens.
Flash years ahead, and Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a shy college freshman in Oslo, with no friends and a text/phone relationship with her parents back home that borders on stalking – mom (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) typically does the talking, prompted by an overly-interested Trond in the background. The pretext for his obsession is his determination that she continue to adhere to strict Christian values while in school.
So much for that. Despite her social maladroitness, Thelma soon has tentative friends, courtesy of a young woman named Anja (Kaya Wilkins) who comes to her aid when she has a seizure in class. Soon, she even has her first beer and has a drive-by experience with pot. Anja’s friends are in the fast lane as partyers, and Thelma is a bad fit. Still, it’s forbidden fruit and no good can come of it.
Carrie aside, the seizures (and the subsequent intense medical diagnostic tests) suggest early scenes of The Exorcist. The fact that ravens and other corvids turn, um, strange around her could come straight out of The Omen. Trier obviously references the genre, even while taking it much farther into metaphor territory.
Then, in Trond’s worst Biblical nightmare, Anja is smitten with Thelma, who is confused by her reciprocal feelings. Trier does an excellent job of connecting Thelma’s sexual awakening with her literal and figurative empowerment. In one electric and demurely erotic scene at a ballet (surreptitious fondling in the company of Anja’s mother), we see objects move as Thelma’s feelings rise.
But Joachim Trier is not Lars von Trier (supposedly a distant relative), so he is not one to let go of a three-act narrative with both hands, nor to consider tying up loose-ends to be succumbing to Hollywood trope. There is an expositional side to the plot, an attempt to discover the family secret and spell everything out (or most of it, anyway).
And in one of the movie’s few moments of weakness, the ending succumbs to logic-bending deus ex machina. After taking his time building suspense and knotting stomachs, it seems Trier was in the mood for a quick way out.
Still, Thelma is a thoughtful and engrossing approach to both psychological and real horror. Harboe’s conveys Thelma’s emotions with the fear of someone who finally has ahold of the steering wheel on her own life, but has never had any driving lessons. The inevitable crash is well-timed and executed.
Thelma. Directed by Joachim Trier. Starring Ellie Harboe, Kaya Wilkins and Henrik Rafaelsen. Opens Friday, Nov. 17 at Cineplex Yonge/Dundas.