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.