Joachim Trier’s Thelma opens with an unnerving father-daughter hunting trip on a frozen lake. As the pair cautiously progresses across the ice, the camera occasionally points down, catching fish darting around just below the surface of the dark but clear water. The ominous atmosphere of the moment escalates swiftly when, stalking a deer, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) gets into position, only to turn his rifle on his unaware child, Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg). The father holds the gun to her head for an excruciatingly long time before reconsidering his plan and lowering the weapon. Few scenes in the rest of Joachim Trier’s film match the sharp tension of this sequence, its cold precision masking a compelling mystery that’s all too quickly explained.
Leaping ahead in time to meet Thelma (Eili Harboe) as a teenager on the brink of graduating high school, the film sees her living a pious, sheltered life under the careful eye of her parents. Thelma seems an ideal child, so respectful that she keeps Trond and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) updated on her whereabouts for the brief moments when she’s not at home. When she broaches the subject of attending university, though, her parents blanch, clearly worried to have her away from home. Only under numerous conditions will they allow her to go, and Thelma’s early scenes at college show her abiding by those conditions—and at the expense of a social life. Even when she does go out she appears noticeably reserved, though she doesn’t necessarily shrink into the background, speaking amicably but frankly to others about her beliefs. Other young people react to her teetotaling with a sense of bafflement, and when one boy scoffs when she admits to being religious, she enters into an earnest attempt at debate in the middle of a bar.
These moments are the film’s highlight, as they illustrate Thelma’s complex, realistically contradictory persona in quick but revealing glimpses. She’s fun and timid, forthright and nonjudgmental, the kind of person whose social maladroitness doesn’t preclude her ability to enjoy herself around others and for others to enjoy her. Thelma emerges as a character with a fully fleshed-out sense of self, not unlike the protagonist of Trier’s earlier Oslo, August 31st.
That complexity, however, fades when Thelma meets Anja (Okay Kaya), a beautiful classmate who stirs romantic feelings in her that are so strong that they cause fierce seizures. Thelma’s physical helplessness is an obvious metaphor for a strongly hinted-at sexual repression that’s rooted in her sheltered upbringing. It’s a dramatic illustration on its own merits, but the film in the end only believes in Thelma as a narrative device: Her transformation is complete when it’s soon revealed that her seizures also trigger latent mental powers that can alter the world to fulfill her deepest desires, from hypnotizing Anja into wanting her to erasing individuals out of existence.
The rest of the film functions as a paranormal thriller, and only on the surface as an exploration of how Thelma’s subconscious triggers cataclysmic, tragic resolutions to her unsatisfied wants. Trier vibrates the camera to visualize Thelma’s emanating powers, but he gleans the most impact from low-budget workarounds to illustrate the terror of the girl’s telekinesis, relying often on shot-reverse-shot patterns that reveal an offending object or person suddenly vanished from Thelma’s vicinity. Soon, though, the redundant presentation of these assaults drain Thelma’s future eruptions of psychic violence, which never significantly differ in strength or ability, of their shock.
More egregiously, Thelma’s transition into the paranormal doesn’t complicate its initially potent character study. The entire back half of Trier’s film feels like a constantly replaying scene, a locked cycle of action that ultimately reduces all of Thelma’s personal relationships to their most thematically bare relevance. Too much of the film feels like a school thesis, not the work of a major emerging filmmaker just hitting his stride, and a predictable finale ends things on a trite, obvious note that seems worlds away from the heart-stoppingly evocative opening that’s so lush with mystery and promise.