A year ago I went on a YouTube binge of sci-fi movie trailers and somehow ended up viewing the trailer for Thelma (2017), a Norwegian film directed by Joachim Trier, that combines mystery, thriller, and drama genres for a contemporary twist. The trailer stuck out and was in my mind days after, as it was captivatingly creepy and stirred my fright. In turn of my inherent fear to watch anything that could be the least bit terrifying and weaponize my imagination against me, I hesitated to ever give the movie a watch. Yet recently, I went to the theatre with friends to see The Nun. The film included everything that I typically hate in horror films—ghosts and possession—but I walked away from that movie cracking jokes about the bad dialogue, movie makeup, and the plot holes big enough for a human to fall through. After watching The Nun, I figured if I didn’t go home worried about sisters decked in habits hiding in the darkest recesses of my closet at night, then I could make it through Thelma.
Right off the bat, the film hits you with striking and mysterious images, invoking the viewer’s curiosity. We see a young Thelma and her father walking across a lake frozen over. Thelma—wearing a bright red coat in contrast to the white snow, ice, and sky filling the rest of the frame—briefly stops to stare at the fish swimming beneath the ice. Her and her father travel past the lake and into the snow-addled brush where her father prepares to hunt. When a deer comes along, unbeknownst to Thelma who watches the deer in wait for her father’s shot, his rifle is pointed at the very back of her head. Suspense runs high in the audible silence and apparent internal struggle of Thelma’s father, as we wait for his next move. Eventually, he lowers the gun before the frame goes dark. As the film takes a time jump to Thelma’s college years, we are left wondering why a father would feel motivated to kill his daughter and are invited to learn why.
We learn that Thelma (Eili Harboe) has left her small town and religious family for university and a biology degree. Amid her pursuit of knowledge and self-discovery, we get inklings of supernatural abilities tied to her uncontrollable seizures. The first seizure causes a posse of crows to flock to the glass windows of her university’s library. Some of the crows kill themselves as they fly into the glass.
We also see how lonely Thelma feels while at university through strategic shots with ample negative space. Negative space is prominent in frames as bare walls and spacious rooms become a backdrop when Thelma is by herself. She sits in the middle of the frame, small in comparison to the negative space or bare walls surrounding her.
Our sympathy for this lonesome yet confusingly powerful character grows as we see her struggle to make friendships, to control her seizures, and their supernatural effects. She also struggles with her sexuality and religious identity as she begins to fall in love with her female classmate Anja. In the beginning of the film, it’s revealed how Thelma’s father has impressed the importance of self-control, hence her reluctance (eventually falls away) to drink alcohol at the start of her university experience. We find out he has instilled the fear of judgement in Thelma by holding her hand over the fire of a candle so she can feel the heat of Hell’s fire in her early years.
Aside from the cognitive dissonance plaguing Thelma while navigating these new experiences, she’s also plagued by night terrors and hallucinations. The audience, along with Thelma, question her reality and grow just as confused as Thelma in the self-discovery process.
The lighting further emphasizes Thelma’s confusion and lack of control as it consistently flickers during her seizures. She’s constantly battling between her conscious and subconscious. Consciously her religion as practiced tells her to control herself, to not drink alcohol, to not be in a relationship with Anja, when her subconscious rebels against these ideas. Darkness thus becomes synonymous with Thelma’s subconscious and during these moments of flickering lights, we see that subconscious trying to peek through, her supernatural abilities bubbling over to makes her innermost desires a reality.
While the first forty minutes slowly move as we see Thelma embracing the world beyond her small town, they create sympathy and familiarization with the main character and begin establishing Thelma as an anti-hero. I use the label anti-hero because we sympathize with Thelma, but there are many moments where her actions are morally questionable.; such as her slight social media stalking and emotional manipulation of Anja. The list only grows as Thelma’s seizures continue and secrets about her past are freed.
One critical element of any mystery is secrets. Secrets are in essential in that they allow for moments of revelation for the character(s) and audience who are seeking truth in the midst of confusion. Secrets are infused into the storyline through Thelma’s parents and Thelma’s faulty memory. As Thelma’s seizures continue to plague her, she visits doctors, takes an MRI scan, has her brain activity examined during an induced seizure. She begins to learn more about her medical history including seizures at the age of six—a history her parents have kept from her and that Thelma has kept from herself through mental suppression.
Thus a short bout of investigation ensues as Thelma researches her diagnosis, which was similar to her grandmother, and the location of the mental hospital her grandmother resides for the sake of answers. This is a powerful moment in the film as Thelma tries to understand the unknown for herself, independently seeks self-knowledge after periods of confusion at university where she didn’t know what version of herself to believe—a self-controlled and obedient Thelma or a more experimental and uninhibited Thelma.
Flashbacks also relay secrets of six-year-old Thelma as we find her powers led to the death of her baby brother. Through this revelation, her parents, as characters, are given complexity rejecting a stereotypical, overbearing Christian parent representation. These flashbacks also offer a measure of Thelma’s powers, leaving to questions of her morality even though Thelma lacks conscious control of these abilities.
When she goes back to her parent’s home, leaving university, the question of morals spread to all involved, parents included, as they keep Anja hostage and drugged up in fear of her powers—constricting and confining Thelma’s subconscious self. This doesn’t end well for her parents, Thelma’s father falls prey to her powers as he drowns in the lake that froze over at the start of the film. This tragic event takes place while Thelma sleeps, her subconscious was set loose to make her hidden desires of freedom from her parents a reality.
The scene of her father drowning gave opportunity for contrast. In the start of the film, the frozen over lake had life brimming beneath it, trapped, similar to Thelma in her period of adolescence. However as Thelma comes into her own, has her coming of age journey, this lake is shown at the end of the film without ice or snow, nature brimming and uninhibited just like Thelma. Only her inhibition leads to the death of her father—a consequence of Thelma’s free will. And really her entire journey is about free will. The name Thelma, when researched, can be found as meaning will and volition, unveiling an overarching theme in the film.
Throughout my viewing of Thelma, I found it to be a unique coming of age film that offers a discussion of self-discovery, of morality, of will, and our subconscious desires. A discussion of how we try so hard to explain the things we don’t understand about ourselves or the world through the lens of science and religion. It’s handle of secrets adds an element of mystery to a narrative that feels highly dramatic and romantic in its first hour but turns thrilling and dark in the second half. We find ourselves rooting for Thelma, the anti-hero, despite her mistakes. Her own anger at her lack of self-control evokes our sympathy as we see how powerless Thelma is in her supernatural actions. Through Thelma, we come to an understanding of the enormous power of will and contemplate its role in our own lives.
Thank you for reading, that’s another door closed. Until next time!
— Kayla Chambers, Art & Design Editor; Layout Editor