A good film is often hard to describe. Like a powerful work of art, the connection one has to the picture can be unexplainable, but at the same time, undeniable.
So to say that Joachim Trier’s latest film, Thelma, left me breathless would be pretty accurate. Following his American-set drama Louder Than Bombs (which made my top 10 favorite films of 2016), Trier sets the stage in his native country of Norway (Oslo to be exact). With his proven artistic and sensitive eye, the seemingly ordinary story of a young woman coming of age turns into something extraordinary– dabbling in the supernatural, repressed sexuality, and family secrets. Thelma, which is also Norway’s official foreign-language Oscar submission, is an unwavering, head-on look at the human desire for connection and the need to be understood.
Do you remember the moment you fell in love for the very first time? The rush of adrenaline pulsating throughout your body made you feel as if you were floating, and you welcomed this loss of control because you were happy. For the reserved first-year college student Thelma (Eili Harboe), this experience also included the heavy burden of shame and guilt because these feelings involved another woman, fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Thelma’s strict religious background forced upon her by her parents not only alienates her from her peers, but her history of being predisposed to epileptic fits makes it difficult to live confidently in her own skin.
Anja reciprocates Thelma’s growing romantic feelings but even that isn’t enough for Thelma to overcome her sexual discomfort and confusion. This suppression eventually leads to a literal bursting of supernatural powers, taking shape in the form of wild creatures and nightmarish situations. The tangled themes of simultaneously experiencing grief and love are universal feelings although, for Thelma, her internal struggle has existential implications.
Without sounding cliché, Trier has given us the true definition of a cinematic experience in ‘Thelma.’
A relative newcomer to the big screen, Eili Harboe delivers a fearless, gut-wrenching, and award-winning performance that will surely be talked about in the coming months. Aside from demanding physical stunts, Harboe gives many dimensions to her character– she is complex in that she can be both vulnerable and strong at the same time. For Kaya Wilkins, Thelma marks her acting debut and it is her doe-eyed innocence in front of the camera that makes Anja a deeply sympathetic character. I venture to say that we can expect both of these names to be recognizable ones very, very soon.
The character-driven storyline is one that Joachim Trier has come to perfect throughout his career, but what sets Thelma apart from the rest of his filmography is this film’s dip into the supernatural in an otherwise straightforward story of dealing with the human desire and struggle for self-acceptance. Ultimately, Thelma embodies the great pursuit of love, told in an allegorical way that ruminates in silence and a sense of foreboding.
At this point in his career, Trier is developing a recognizable “look” that washes over his films. A tightly crafted script with help from frequent co-writer and longtime friend, Eskil Vogt, and a brooding musical composition complement Thelma‘s sobering color palette. The cool temperature is juxtaposed between the characters’ emotional warmth, evoking a visual style all it’s own.
Thelma is a genre film with intellect. Trier pushes his audience to imagine what cinema can be beyond the constraints of sequels and re-boots. His imaginative and ambitious storytelling results in stunning films that feel timeless in both their visual style and subject matter. Without sounding cliché, Trier has given us the true definition of a cinematic experience in Thelma.
‘Thelma’ is not rated. 116 minutes. Opening in select Los Angeles theaters this Friday.