VIFF Review: ‘Thelma’ and the existential dilemma that is becoming yourself

Thelma begins with two things. First, a warning that if you have epilepsy the movie might set it off and second, a father and his young daughter walking in the woods, hunting. The girl sees a deer and inches forward, transfixed. The father readies his gun and aims at the deer and then slowly changes his aim to the back of his little girls head. He doesn’t pull the trigger it’s clear from the get go that he desperately wants to. Then the movie starts to get interesting.

Fast forward a decade and Thelma (Eili Harboe), now a young woman, has come to the big city and university as a freshman. She’s spent the intervening time in a strict, rural, christian upbringing which leaves her at a loss when it comes to dealing with other people her own age. While studying in the library another beautiful woman sits down beside her (Kaya Wilkins as Anja). Thelma feels an instant attraction and then has a massive seizure as a bird slams into the window beside them.

So begins her journey of self discovery. In conflict with her upbringing, Thelma begins to discover that maybe she’s a lesbian. Her seizures continue and she begins to fear she might be epileptic, or perhaps she’s manifesting some dark supernatural power within herself.

To say this isn’t your usual coming of age tale would be an understatement. Thelma’s path leads her toward her sexuality, but also to strange occurrences. The wind blowing when she’s agitated, snakes slithering into and out of her dreams and fantasies, and a sinister murder of crows haunting areas wherever she goes. During a night at the symphony with Anja the beginnings of reciprocal feelings of love and lust nearly cause the theatre to collapse.

I would be doing you a disservice to tell you how the latter half of the movie actually plays out but suffice to say that director Joachim Trier knows when, and how, to ratchet up the existential terror that Thelma is going through and not to let it up at all. The atmosphere throughout is thick with melancholy and dread, and he keeps that movie by shying way from exposition, preferring instead to answer questions posed in the first act (why did her father point the gun at her? Why is her mother in a wheelchair?) with acutely timed flashbacks.

Eili Harboe gives a star making performance, embracing and revelling in all the conflict and crisis that Thelma goes through. You’ve probably never seen her before but I’d invite you to keep an eye out, she’ll be in Hollywood movies by next year for sure.

At its core Thelma is a about a young woman journey to figuring out who she is. It’s a coming of age tale, wrapped in a love story, dipped in a supernatural mystery. Sprinkle in some sex and dread and we’re talking about a movie that you definitely want to see.