NYFF FILM REVIEW: Supernatural Norwegian Thriller THELMA More Bark Than Bite
Thelma, Norway’s submission to the Academy Awards this year, treats us to a somewhat supernatural thriller about a girl who discovers she has powerful and bizarre extra sensorial powers. And while the plot revolves around her journey from confused discovery of these abilities to the moment when she can master and wield them effectively, the film itself remains more stuck in confusion than its principal character eventually becomes.
Young Thelma lives in the Norwegian countryside with extremely devout and cruelly controlling parents. The parents clearly fear her and perhaps even hate her, but they are also compelled by their religion to accept and tolerate her. And it is not the reason you would expect that drives the parents away—it is not that they suspect she is into other women, though that does not help. Instead, it becomes clear as the morsels are revealed that the parents understand what Thelma yet does not: that she can move objects and people to her metaphysical will and has done so, to tragic consequences, in the past.
Thelma, for her part, naturally yearns to escape the confines of rural life and the prison her parents have constructed for her. Upon her arrival at University in Oslo, she quickly falls for another girl, which reawakens and exacerbates her psychokinetic abilities. But, because Thelma at first does not comprehend what is happening to her and has only blurry memories of the disturbing episodes from infancy, she feels herself trapped in a maelstrom of terrifying and inexplicable events. All the while she is cruelly mocked by her classmates for her religiosity and small-town origins, sending the confused young woman into further despair.
The film, by Norwegian director Joachim Trier, is constructed as a mystery, a soft terror film in which birds act strangely and images of dead babies haunt Thelma’s dreams. It explores themes of acceptance, sensuality, religiosity, and fate. But though it dabbles in all of these subject matters and more with its thoughtful prescription. But it never quite lands a cohesive message about any of them, and instead defaults into a pretty standard and not particularly frightening thriller.
The best that can be said about Thelma as strictly a horror film is its moody lighting, its dark overtones, its whispered conversations. There are one or two moments of genuine fright, but other than that the tone insists on being psychological, and there is not a lot of psychology there to explore in the first place. Movies about individuals with scary powers that are triggered by stress, anger, or fear are quite common, and Thelma lives comfortably and unremarkably within that cannon. The big revelations that offer themselves are expected—though, to be fair, they visually work. What you see is the best part of what you get, in other words.