You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Thelma’

Joachim Trier's psychological thriller is an unnervingly effective slow-burn.

Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervag

A year after his English-language debut “Louder than Bombs,” Norwegian director Joachim Trier returns to the language and the setting, if not the genre, of his breakout film, “Oslo, August 31st,” with “Thelma.” Selected as Norway’s foreign language Oscar entry prior to its Toronto debut, “Thelma” taps into subject matter that will have a very familiar ring with horror fans, zeroing in on an intense, sensitive young girl from a fundamentalist religious background, who gradually recognizes that she is both blessed and cursed with awesome telekinetic powers. But whereas Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” tackled this scenario with lurid, humid verve, Trier treats it with chilly, distant remove, replacing De Palma’s overheated melodrama and explosive finale with glacial sensuality and a perversely underplayed denouement. At times a tad too subtle, “Thelma” is nonetheless an unnervingly effective slow-burn, and those with the patience for Trier’s patient accumulation of detail will find it pays off in unexpected ways.

We first see Thelma (Grethe Eltervag) as a young girl in a prologue, out deer hunting with her father in some remote, snowy stretch of Norway. Her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) is quietly uneasy as they cross a frozen lake, and when Thelma spots a buck in a clearing, he ever so briefly aims his rifle at the back of her head. But even without that alarming intro, there’s something indefinably off about the young adult Thelma (Eili Harboe) we’re introduced to in the next scene, having just moved to Oslo for college.

She shows up for classes, swims, studies, and keeps a tidy studio apartment, but Thelma has no friends, and seems to have no idea how friendship actually works. She makes nightly phone calls to to her wheelchair-bound mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), and along with her father Trond – silently coaching his wife on the phone – the two parents express an off-putting interest in every detail of her daily routine. (Trond treats her with stern affection, Unni seems to find it a struggle to be pleasant.) One day in the library, Thelma glances up and sees a fellow student named Anja (Kaya Wilkins) smile at her, and within seconds has a convulsive seizure, with birds crashing into the library windows as she twitches on the floor.

After the seizure, Thelma keeps running into Anja, stalking her on Instagram, thinking about her at night. It’s clearly love at first sight, yet Thelma has no idea how to process these feelings, and makes one tiny step after another to work her way into Anja’s hard-partying circle of friends, with her evangelical upbringing making her an awkward fit. (We never learn the exact details of the family’s faith, though Thelma’s nervous glance at a nearby gay couple as she has dinner with her parents tells us plenty.) After another seizure and some disturbing dreams, Thelma is surprised to see Anja becoming rapidly enamored with her, reciprocating the desires she is too confused to express herself.

Trier is a voracious student of directing, and with “Thelma” we see echoes of everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Jane Campion and even Lars von Trier. But as Thelma’s sexual repression begins to manifest in psychokinetic phenomena, his real model seems to be Edgar Allen Poe. In one breathtaking scene, Anja’s mother invites Thelma along to a ballet; as they silently watch, Anja begins caressing Thelma’s leg, and objects in the room start to slowly move. The scene is both powerfully erotic and obliquely terrifying, and with nothing more than brushes of the fingertips and the sway of the ceiling fixtures, Trier builds this conflation of lust, shame, and panic to an almost unbearable pitch.

There are other sequences of similar impact – including an MRI scene so visually assaultive that the film comes equipped with a warning for epileptic viewers – though as Thelma pursues treatment for her seizures and flashbacks show us what happened between the younger Thelma and her parents, the film does begin to lose some of its cold-fused power. Trier and co-scripter Eskil Vogt still have a number of thorny questions to pose, right up until the film’s final shot, but the effect is more intellectual than emotional, with the filmmakers hesitant to fully disturb the icy sheen under which the story’s real turmoil is taking place.

Nonetheless, “Thelma” leaves you with plenty to chew on. Harboe and Wilkins are both relatively green actresses, and the former’s tightly-wound blankness makes her an ideal counterpart for the latter’s more laid-back naturalism. The yin-yang interplay between Thelma and Anja early in their relationship suggests that under less complicated circumstances they would make a perfect couple, and the more perfect for each other they seem, the more sinister the film’s later revelations become.

Film Review: 'Thelma'

Reviewed at Rodeo Screening Room, Los Angeles, August 25, 2017. (In Toronto International Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) Running time: 116 MINS.

Production: Produced by Thomas Robsahm. Executive producers, Sigve Endresen, Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier.

Crew: Director: Joachim Trier. Screenplay: Trier, Eskil Vogt. Camera (color): Jakob Ihre. Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutte. Music: Ola Flottum.

With: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervag

More Film

  • Kevin Costner Diane Lane

    Kevin Costner, Diane Lane to Reunite in Suspense Thriller 'Let Him Go'

    Focus Features has tapped Kevin Costner and Diane Lane to star as a husband and wife in the suspense thriller “Let Him Go.” The two also collaborated on “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Thomas Bezucha (“The Family Stone”) is set to direct his own screenplay, based on Larry Watson’s novel [...]

  • Chris Hemsworth Hulk Hogan

    Chris Hemsworth to Play Hulk Hogan in Biopic for Netflix

    Netflix is in the early stages of developing a Hulk Hogan biopic with Chris Hemsworth attached to star as the wrestling legend and produce. Netflix has obtained the exclusive life rights and consulting services from Terry Gene Bollea AKA Hulk Hogan. Todd Phillips, whose credits include “War Dogs” and “The Hangover” trilogy, is attached to [...]

  • Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant

    Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant Winners

    Swedish documentary filmmaker Anastasia Kirillova and “Negative Space” co-directors Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter are among the filmmakers who will receive grants from Rooftop Films to help complete their upcoming projects. Kirilova will be awarded $20,000 to finish her film, “In the Shadows of Love,” while collaborators Kuwahata and Porter will receive $10,000 for “Dandelion [...]

  • Jim Gianopulos

    Paramount Chief Jim Gianopulos Unveils Diversity Initiative

    Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos has announced that all studio productions will be required to complete a plan to enhance diversity. Wednesday’s reveal follows Paramount’s commitment to participating in Time’s Up and Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge. The name is derived from women having directed only 4% of the country’s top grossing movies [...]

  • Leave No Trace

    Oscar Analysts Are Sincere -- but Often Totally Wrong

    With Oscars arriving Feb. 24, we can expect multiple “who will win/who should win” columns. There will also be a flurry of post-show analyses about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and why members voted the way they did. Since AMPAS never releases polls or voting tallies, these pundits will never be contradicted [...]

  • Green Book spiderman into the spider

    On Eve of Oscars, Variety’s Film Experts Answer Three Pressing Questions

    We continue to live in a divided world, with the current political landscape in the United States a seemingly endless hotbed of tumult and acrimony. Issues of racism, bigotry, diversity and gender equality drive the creative players as well, with Oscar-nominated films parlaying said themes into compelling, thought-provoking cinema. To analyze 2018 in big-screen entertainment, [...]

  • Karl Lagerfeld'Lagerfeld Confidential' Photocall at the

    Karl Lagerfeld Remembered at Costume Designers Guild Awards

    The death of fashion and costume designer Karl Lagerfeld cast somewhat of a shadow over the usually jubilant Costume Designers Guild Awards — the only award show where clothes literally steal the spotlight away from actors — which was held at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday night. Here it was obvious that Lagerfeld’s impact on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content