Review by Bears Fonte
Of all the films of I’ve seen so far at Fantastic Fest, the one that has stuck with me is the most understated: Thelma. On its surface a Norwegian coming of age story about a young woman leaving her repressive Christian home for the first time as she goes to University to study biology, the film slowly becomes a troubling science fiction super villain origin story that most people probably were too positive in their outlook to notice. In order to really talk about this film, I’m going to have to fill with this article with spoilers so hopefully you’ve seen this masterful drama or if not, you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind having major portions of the plot spoiled. So yes, read on warned.
THELMA slowly builds it’s undercurrent of unsettling moral decision-making as our title character faces a world that her religious background has not prepared her for. At the heart of the conflict of the film is the very question of choice itself and whether with Thelma such a concept even exists. But it’s two-thirds of the way through the film when you truly understand who and what Thelma might be, so for much of the film you are trapped like her, not knowing why things are happening. The film opens with an unbelievably strong image of a young girl out in the woods with her father, and the father slowly raising his rifle behind her as if to end her life peacefully. However, he hesitates and is unable to make the choice that he knows is the best for everyone in the long run.
With a film that deals so extensively with the concept of choice, Thelma opens with the most important and most legitimate moral decision the film proposes. As we begin to understand who Selma is, we look back at this moment in the film as maybe the only unencumbered choice anyone has the opportunity to make. Brilliantly the opening turns the audience against the father immediately even though he makes the proper choice. For better or worse we side with Thelma as we leap forward a decade or so into Thelma’s first days at University. Having been home-schooled, she does not have the sort of social skills that allow her to make friends quickly, something she admits to her father. She also laughs about their acquaintances who still believe in creationism. Even though she is in school to study biology, her parents caution her against feeling like she is better than other people.
Although Thelma is troubled by their condemnation she does slowly begin to slip into what appears to be a natural life for young girl at college, making a friend named Anya and going to parties where she drinks her first alcohol. But as she does this, other strange things seem to be happening around her. A bird makes a suicide flight into a window at the library where she is studying right after meeting Anya, causing(?) Thelma to have a seizure. Another night she is thinking of Anya scrolling through her Facebook page when Anya shows up outside her window. This elicits another seizure and Thelma begins to believe she has epilepsy although doctors can find no sign of it.
As Thelma and Anya’s relationship becomes more than a friendship, Thelma’s seizures increase and her doctor reveals that she had seizures when she was 6 and had been given medication by her father who was a doctor. She also learns that she has a grandmother who’s been in a mental hospital in a coma with a similar condition, a psychosomatic epilepsy that is often misunderstood as possession. Reconciling her feelings for Anya with her Christian upbringing becomes difficult for Thelma. Her father tells her she doesn’t love Anya she was just lonely and that she needs to stop. It’s a heartbreaking moment seen in many LGBTQ coming-of-age stories and Thelma tries to push her feelings away. Unfortunately for Anya this film is not a coming-of-age LGBTQ film, and when Thelma wishes away her feelings, she also wishes away Anya – Anya just completely disappears.
This is where the film reveals itself as a supervillain origin story. Thelma has the power to control the very fabric of the universe. Crafted in the freedom of expression clay of a coming of age, Thelma’s fight for freedom basically frees her from the universal laws of physics. If her parents hadn’t repressed her sexuality, maybe this would have turned out differently but at the end of the film Thelma reveals herself to basically have no moral compass. Sure, it ends happily ever after… if you are her … but getting to that point she has a few scores to settle.
Look – I love this movie. Its so subtle in its perversion of the idea of a villain. It clearly was written by someone who understands Hollywood structure and can manipulate an audience with delicacy. Eili Harboe gives a strong performance as the title character – which is pretty exciting because she was amazing in THE WAVE – look for her to cross over into English language film soon if there is any justice in the world. Writer/director Joachim Trier keep a determined pace, slowly building the tension and emotional resonance until it all comes crashing down in Scandinavian despair. But it all goes back to this script. If the Suicide Squad needs a new stand-in, look no further than Thelma.
THELMA made its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest last week.