Sexual awakening and horror are two things which have gone hand in hand over the years but Joachim Trier’s Thelma feels like a bold, distinct interpretation in this most metaphorically loaded of sub-genres.
A drama focused on a repressed young girl, the eponymous Thelma (Elli Harboe) who has supernatural powers reawoken by a burgeoning relationship with a fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a key success here is that Trier knows that those coming to the film with have some interest in the more genre inflected content of the marketing but knows when to lean into it and when not to, this is a film primarily about a young girl fighting her urges and hurting those around her in the process.
Harboe is a marvel in the lead, a wholly empathetic young woman is has been raised in such a way that she is utterly unable to comprehend what her heart is telling her but crucially does not seem particularly affected by her younger experiences. Her parents weren’t evil in what they were doing, they throughout feel they are doing what is right for better or worse, and so aside from being socially awkward, Harboe’s performance doesn’t contain the affectations one usually associates with “troubled young girl” performances, and this is welcome relief.
The rest of the cast get somewhat shorter shift and this is somewhat disappointing as Wilkins essentially becomes a Macguffin for much of the plotting (though there’s some interesting meta-textual material here suggesting that this may be a very deliberate decision) though when she’s on-screen the chemistry with Harboe is palpable and very much lends your emotional investment when the more narrative driven events of the film’s second half kick in.
Trier knows when to go for the jugular though with several standout sequences which demand attention. The demonstration of Thelma’s powers are rather brief, sharp sequences early on but a sequence in a hospital which leads into the film’s second half is an extraordinary piece of cinema with the events leading up to it built into the visual and emotional shock which this sequence ends with. Some hints of Brian DePalma’s underseen The Fury also rear their head at-times with the dispatching of a character late on feeling as if it could have been in that film were it made with the technology of today.
Thelma is an at-times mesmerising bit of relationship drama/sci-fi horror mashing up which is well worth your time, a visceral but also tender look at young love and what can happen when it isn’t allowed.