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, aims at the deer, and then slowly changes his aim to the back of his little girl’s 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.

VIFF 2017

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 dealing with other people her own age. Then, while studying in the library, another beautiful woman sits 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 have epilepsy, 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 away 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 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 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.


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