A Norwegian teenager’s identity crisis has dangerous repercussions for her family and friends.
Americans have a tendency to idolize Scandinavia as a place of good schooling, smart urbanism, and cultural pacifism. The beginning of Joachim Trier’s Thelma, therefore, has an especially unexpected nature to it when these things are all affirmed in the background and disrupted in the foreground. The opening shot, in fact, takes place in a college campus quad, viewed from afar, that zooms in so slowly on our subject you almost feel as if you pick her yourself.
Our protagonist is Thelma (Eili Harboe), a student in her first year at university, and she seems the archetype of most outside projections of Norway. Blonde and tall, she runs between bio classes wearing a Kanken and an array of tasteful sweaters, and for a while, the tenuous music of a horror film that follows her feels almost comical.
Our first impression is of a quiet girl starting out at a new school, and it’s easy for any young person to remember the constraining pressures that came with the start of college – an entirely new chance at identity and adulthood, the first one for many, and you don’t want to screw it up – a sense of total isolation arrives with this new place. Thelma, like most students, represses it; the feeling’s temporary and classes are more important. But in the library, shortly after the seat next to her is taken by the beautiful Anja (Kaya Wilkins), Thelma loses her shot at a good first impression. She falls out of her chair, wets herself, and starts seizing on the floor. In the scooting of chairs and rushing of peers to check on her, the rest of the students miss something; at the same time, birds begin killing themselves against the library windows.
The idea of psychological monsters isn’t new in horror, but when was the last time you saw a thriller where the protagonist is also plainly the main perpetrator of their fright?
A discretion to any potential viewers – the film has the potential to be more harmful than actually scary. Because Thelma is, for a while, thought to have epilepsy, flashing lights become an aspect of the suspenseful game the film plays with the audience, that liminal period in all horror movies where you know something’s happening but don’t know what. The first half hour is a confusing bout of snakes slithering, lights flashing, darkened faces over lampposts, enough to make you think the film is more provocative than plot-based. In fact, the groundwork is being laid for a compellingly complex story somewhere between science and magic. Thelma is in fact diagnosed with Psychogenic Non-Epileptic Seizures, a disease often associated with witchcraft and Satanism.
In Googling her ailment (reminiscent of Bella’s internet binge on vapiric lore in Twilight (2008)), Joan of Arc surfaces. Her self-awareness emerges at the same time as Anja, the stranger who sat next to her, reaches out and strikes up a friendship, one that quickly progresses into something more serious and passionate. Thelma’s reciprocation of her feelings are immediate, but the homoerotic overtones are an immediate source of discomfort – and a gateway to the supernatural.
That sense of alienation following a young, closeted evangelical upon entering college is so palpable, it’s almost unsurprising that it takes on telekinetic energies.
Thelma was raised in a strongly Christian household; her parents call her every night and she isn’t expected to drink alcohol. This was, at least for me, another disruption of my perceptions of Scandinavia. Part of the region’s penchant for placidity is their idea, in my mind, of self-justified morality, as opposed to ethics set down by fear of holy judgment. Trier captures an often unseen side of religious fundamentalism in the region, one which catalyzes Thelma’s culture shock upon entering college and takes her sexual anxiety to new heights. That sense of alienation following a young, closeted evangelical upon entering college is so palpable, it’s almost unsurprising that it takes on telekinetic energies.
Joachim Trier’s message is ultimately a little revolutionary for the confines of his genre. Horror movies aren’t new in offering up psychological monsters, but when was the last time you saw a thriller where the protagonist is also plainly the main perpetrator of their fright? There is no frightening outside monster here, the only thing Thelma fears is her own inexplicable powers. When her love for Anja finally has to confront that of her parents, she seems to have no clue which side she is on, a daunting statement on the confusion of adolescence.
If there is a problem with Trier’s film, it’s the fact that he needed to make frightening in the first place. It’s hard to imagine Thelma in any other context, but the material and the tension of the narrative exists, almost more purely, without any sinister or supernatural element. If anything, it’s just a little too real to jump us out of our seats, because blood doesn’t spill when you disobey your parents and partake in whatever your crush is having – that’s just college.
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