Thelma (2017)

In Thelma, both the main protagonist and director Joachim Trier realise the potential of her psychic powers, culminating in a taut and shocking narrative that refuses to bow down to one particular genre.

Mind Games

by Gus Edgar


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The next in a succession of ‘female-led coming-of-age narratives with a surreal twist’, Joachim Trier’s Thelma possesses horror elements that strike deeper than Raw,and a fixation on development through sexual awakening that is less muddled than Ava. Most noticeably, it is the film that strays the furthest away from the conventional Bildungsroman narrative its first half hints at, thrusting its teenage protagonist in at the deep end and trapping her there.

Whereas a film concerning psychic abilities usually conforms to the limitations that anchor its allegory, Thelma careers into wholly new and exciting territory. It is metamorphosis through the lens of horror, a taunt thriller that manages to keep hold of its central, evocative love story.

Thelma herself is a teen studying at a university in Oslo. Her parents disapprove, but their emotional torment is at least a far cry from the film’s opening sequence, in which the father contemplates shooting her daughter through the back of the skull. Why, exactly, is made unclear for now. Though what the opening segment does establish is that the father views his daughter as a threat or source of danger, an awareness that permeates throughout the rest of the film.

At university, she becomes accustomed to the absence of the strict regimented lifestyle enforced on her through the Catholic beliefs of her family. She drinks for the first time, smokes for the first time, and falls in love for the first time too. There’s one problem; her faith restricts her to heterosexuality, and the object of her desire – a girl called Anja who introduces her to life outside the bubble – trickily opposes that. There’s a sweet mutuality in their affection for one another, though the waters are muddied somewhat; through her telekinesis, snakes, birds and foxes are drawn towards Thelma, as if in an uncontrollable trance. What’s to say that that’s not the case with Anja too?

As their relationship develops, so do Thelma’s powers. Soon, they’re rearing their ugly head, conveyed to us through bold, startling imagery that’s just as easy to look at as it is difficult to unpack. The dark turn is surprising, but is not without its foreshadowing, and at once the parents’ wariness of their daughter justifies its existence.

This is a film that examines not just the personal youth and blossoming maturity of its protagonist, but how her actions – and mere existence – affect those around her. It’s a balancing act of parental handling, sinful love and, yes, psychic abilities, not so much attended to in equal measure but smooshed together to form a satisfying and original whole. There’s so much to be read into here: the parents are harsh but sympathetic, and we may be seeing Thelma’s destructive capabilities through their perspective. Anja is welcoming but also imperfect, choosing to go along with the taunts of her peers; perhaps her stance is defined not by her actions but by what Thelma forces her actions to be.

The film ends with a sense of closure contradictory to the manic unravelling of its narrative. This may not be unintentional: by giving the impression of finality, we are taunted to navigate Thelma’s potent imagery and indistinguishable character motivations, picking apart elements of horror, romance and drama; the definitive closure never really reveals itself after all.

Which just makes Thelma so damn interesting: an intense thought-piece on a teenage girl developing and so much more, encouraging debate and obscuring, or placing doubt on each character’s true intent through that central, well-handled conceit of telekinetic abilities.

Thelma premiered in the UK at the 61st BFI London Film Festival is released on 3 November 2017 in the UK.

BFI London Film Festival 2017

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