Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Eili Harboe, Okay Kaya, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 11/10/17 (limited); 11/22/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 21, 2017
For some people, the unexplained things of the world are always reduced to a simple matter of good or evil. It's especially true of certain religious types, such as the central family of Thelma, who may or may not genuinely believe in the tenets of Christianity but most definitely try to follow them to the furthest extent that they can. The idea that the family's faith began as a matter of convenience—an easy solution to a problem that they cannot explain through logic or science—is almost a certainty here.
At least, that's the case with the parents. For their daughter, a young woman in her first year of college, she has received religion as a matter of certainty. She genuinely believes it, or she did until arriving at school, where most of her classmates have been brought up without religious faith.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is having a crisis of faith. She's learning new things, and suddenly, the belief that this world is only several thousand years old seems ridiculous. She didn't necessarily accept this idea before now, and her parents don't seem to prescribe to it, either. Some of the other Christians she has known before college did hold that belief, but she hadn't questioned it as a silly idea.
When she raises her newfound knowledge with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), he chides her, not for questioning the belief, but for assuming that she is somehow superior to those who hold that belief. Just because Thelma thinks she is better than such people doesn't make it so. She doesn't know everything, after all. Thelma quietly agrees, and the matter is closed.
This scene serves as a tidy summary of the relationship between Thelma and her parents. She's allowed to be open about her feelings and her opinions, but at a certain point, the conversation ceases as soon as Trond or, less likely, his wheelchair-bound wife Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) implies that it must. We never really believe that Trond and Unni are people of religious faith, because there are no signs of it in their lives. The only evidence is Thelma, who tells her schoolmates that she is a Christian, attends church services, and prays whenever she is overcome with a feeling of sinfulness.
The impression we get from the parents is that religion serves a purpose for how they interact with their daughter. In its rules, religion is a sturdy way of controlling their daughter's behavior. It's telling that they're both fine with Thelma questioning the very nature of the universe as being created by God. One gets the impression that, if Thelma were ever to question her own parents' authority over her, the conversation would not be as polite. From the film's prologue, in which a young Thelma and Trond go hunting in the woods, we know that another, more extreme thought to control his daughter's fate passed his mind at least once.
The story follows Thelma as she tries to break out of her isolated shell. She becomes known as the girl who had a seizure in the college's reading hall, but what goes unnoticed is how a flock of birds begins swirling in the distance just before her seizure begins. A couple of the birds fly into the window, too. The university medical staff isn't sure what happened to Thelma, but they're confident some more tests in the near future will elicit a diagnosis.
Anja (Okay Kaya), who was in the hall when Thelma had her episode, checks up on her at the school's swimming pool and becomes her friend on a social networking site. After Trond suggests that his daughter try to make some more friends, Thelma goes to a popular bar for students, knowing that she'll see Anja there. That night, Thelma imagines that her new friend is in her dorm room, and at the same time, Anja awakens and takes a walk to Thelma's dormitory.
There's something strange about Thelma, obviously, but the screenplay by director Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt plays it coyly mysterious with the true nature of the character's condition. What we know is that she experiences visions with religiously loaded imagery, such as a snake that arrives whenever she feels tempted. The temptation is Anja, who begins hanging out with Thelma frequently and, during a trip to the ballet, reaches for her hand, before moving it to Thelma's thigh. Thelma has to restrain her own hand, and a massive sculpture hanging above the audience begins to sway.
There are the visions, which often begin in dreamy eroticism and turn into nightmarishly religious fervor, and there appears to be some transference of her feelings into the natural world. Are such events a subjective experience—simply another aspect of her visions—or genuinely happening—a manifestation of her repression? If they're real, how much control does Thelma actually have, and if she has enough, is Anja acting of her own volition or under Thelma's control?
There are plenty of other questions, and Trier and Vogt ultimately answer the most important ones from a storytelling perspective—namely, a term for her condition and what, in general, she is capable of doing. The point, though, is not to put a definitive set of rules and provisions on Thelma's condition. It's to explore the questions of a young woman who is uncertain of herself in every imaginable—and a few unimaginable—ways.
A funny thing happens once the truth about Thelma is revealed: The film becomes even more uncertain, more enigmatic, and more troubling. Secrets are exposed. Punishments are doled out. There's plenty of resolution to the conflicts of Thelma, but we're left to wonder if any of it—the punishment and the mercy—is justified.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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