Thelma review: A sharp variation on coming-of-age thriller

  • Thelma (2017)

Norway’s foreign language film Oscar entry is a poignant coming-of-age film, rich with well-executed symbolism and vicious tension that echoes Carrie and recent Raw in its power.

thelma review

The change of environment didn’t bring Thelma much relief. She struggles to fit in, and the joy that the new discoveries can bring her are numbed by her principles. She often finds herself thinking about the choices her strictly Christian parents would make. She doubts even a bit of alcohol, and it doesn’t help that her parents call her up every night and check on her new Facebook friends. When she starts falling in love, the uncertainties keep on piling up. She represses her feelings to the point where the mental torment evokes supernatural powers within her, unleashing a much darker story.

Joachim Trier uses immense coldness and emotional distance to explain Thelma’s world to us. She struggles to make a connection with anyone at her college, stuck under the imposed beliefs she can’t eradicate straight away. Every time she breaks a rule, a wave of guilt follows, washing away any chance to build on positive feelings brought by the situation.

Eili Harboe’s sensitiveness and the ability to convey her character’s struggle help to decode Thelma for us without stumbling into the obvious transformation journey. And we can definitely feel similar distantness when it comes to her parents. They could appear overprotective, but we can easily sense their detachment in interrogatory calls and controlling conversations. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Unni and Trond perpetuate the unemotional image of Thelma’s parents. They make us question the impact of their frostily stoic approach on their daughter’s wellbeing and wonder if this pathological environment is key to understanding the situation.

What makes us warm up to the protagonist, however, is her relationship with Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Here, both actresses get to underline their character’s differences and rework them into a deep connection. The magnetism between Harboe and Wilkins’s characters marks them as star-crossed lovers suffering in the terrific stream of events that none of them can explain. It’s the only chance for Thelma to let loose, and Anja eagerly introduces her into this world with great care. These are the moments when the heroine puts us at ease, even if we’re constantly learning it might only be the calm before the storm.

Thelma echoes the coming of age horror stories such as Carrie, and evokes many similarities to recent Raw. Similarly, it uses a whole lot of symbolism and stirring imagery (albeit more cautiously than in the films mentioned above) to get to the point. The tension of the opera scene between Anja and Thelma grows immensely as the attraction translates to the girl’s unexpected rush of power, allowing us to question the first parallels drawn in the story. Similar is the party scene where Thelma is lured into sharing a spliff. The allure surrounds us second by second, then hints to rebirth and temptation take over, only to be cut sharp at the very end. It leaves us with more questions, consistently building up the pressure and cultivating the aura of an understatement.

Although Thelma clearly calls for association with well-known thriller/horror film tropes, it’s not easy to put a label on it. However, its frostbitten aura utilises the elements we know well, delivering a variation on the coming-of-age theme that hits all the right notes.

Thelma was showcased as a part of the 61st London Film Festival. It opens in the UK on the 3rd of November 2017. 

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being.
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