‘Thelma’ (2017) | Fantastic Fest Review

Growing up, my family was never particularly religious. However, I grew up around a lot of different kinds of Christianity, and seeing repression of ideas, feelings, and experiences firsthand was always troubling. No one wanted to have a conversation about things that burst the bubble of the enclosed world they lived in. That type of life only fosters guilt and resistance to worldly changes. Even being adjacent to that has created my own repressive tendencies. My issues may not include figuring out my sexuality lays outside the standard issue heteronormative Christian way of living, as the titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) experiences in this film, but figuring out my beliefs are in direct opposition to how I was brought up certainly rings true. Thelma gives this humanistic coming of age tale a supernatural bent to create something truly powerful and beautiful.

The film opens quite startling on a young Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg) and her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) on a hunting trip. They set their sights on a deer. However, when Thelma’s head is turned, Trond points the rifle at the back of Thelma’s head. He can’t pull the trigger, but this unnerving opening immediately gives you the idea of what kind of environment Thelma was brought up in. Now, she is off to her first year of college, and the first time really in her life she is on her own, though she is obligated to make daily phone calls to her parents with them keeping a close track on her scheduling. One day while studying in the library, she has a seizure after pretty classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins) sits at the table next to her. After checking up on Thelma after the incident, the two begin a friendship, which both want to progress further into something else, but Thelma’s upbringing and parents force her to stop it.

Meanwhile, Thelma is continuing to have more seizures that turn out to be more than just seizures and involve psychic and supernatural occurrences to happen around her. The metaphor of her seizures symbolizing the ultimately side effect of her repression is not a subtle one, but that does not make the emotional impact any less meaningful. You ache for Thelma, want to give her a hug, and tell her she is okay. By couching the coming of age story within a genre setting, the true psychological and emotional toll put on her hits you in the way cinema only can.

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier through his patient style and long takes finds all the melancholy in Thelma’s situation, beautifully photographing it with complete truth. He also finds the true horror of her situation with very few moments of hysteria, which is challenge particularly in the film’s final act which so easily could have veered into that. Even with the visuals do get large and otherworldly, Trier’s trademark subtlety is not set aside. The film does begin with a warning to those who have epilepsy, as Thelma is filled with many, many scenes of rapidly flashing lights, yet even those moments feel organic to the world and not like a director trying to make bold visual choices.

Eili Harboe, as far as I’m concerned, is the discovery of the year, a gifted naturalistic performer to stand alongside the likes Rooney Mara and Kristen Stewart. She’s probably already a name in Norway, but she’s a discovery to me (even I previously saw her in The Wave)! So much of Thelma directly depends on Harboe’s face, and the sadness lurking back in her eyes cuts you to your core. Also, and this is a small point, it was so refreshing to see an actor playing a first-year college student who I could actually buy as a first-year college student. The amount of movies where someone is entering university looking like a 30 year-old is insane, and Harboe, as well as her love interest Kaya Wilkins, both manage to look the age of the part even if they’re probably both older.

Thelma hit me on a deeply personal level. No, my experiences are not on the same level of her plight, but a great many of the conversations in this movie felt all too familiar to me. We so often see coming of age stories on screen that the possibility you can see something unique within the genre always feels like its dwindling every year. This proves there are still new, inventive, and effective ways of to make you connect with the struggles of people encountering the real world for the first time. For as calm as it is, Trier makes Thelma a film demanding to be seen as big and loud as you can, and you should do so accordingly.

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