Movies

Movie Review

Even without Louise, ‘Thelma’ holds her own against the patriarchy

Eili Harboe plays the title character in “Thelma,” a thriller from Joachim Trier.
The Orchard
Eili Harboe plays the title character in “Thelma,” a thriller from Joachim Trier.

From the Amazon queen of “Wonder Woman” to the unwitting cannibal in “Raw,” female protagonists with extraordinary powers have been unusually prevalent lately. Somewhere between those two films lies “Thelma” from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (“Oslo, August 31st”), a moody, mannered, and lingering coming-of-age story with a Stephen King-like twist. 

Thelma (a fragile, uncanny Eili Harboe) doesn’t know her own strength. That scares her meek, over-protective mother, Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), and especially her fundamentalist Christian father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) — he’s seen in a flashback at the very beginning of the film aiming a rifle at the then-toddler’s head.  

The family lives in a stark part of Norway in a house that looks like a cross between the Bates Motel and a godforsaken chapel in an early Ingmar Bergman film. No wonder Thelma is happy to get away to a university in Oslo, even though the campus is a monument of brutalist architecture where she is seen in a slow zoom from high above a cobblestone courtyard, an ant-like figure among many, lost and perplexed.  

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It’s never easy fitting in during those first days at college amid thousands of hip strangers, especially if one comes from a strict background where drinking and other such pastimes are forbidden. Nor does her parents’ suffocating surveillance help; they constantly call and monitor her online activities. This conflict between repression and temptation sparks an incident in the university library, where Thelma suddenly falls to the floor in a seizure. In a Hitchcockian touch, birds slam into the library windows; distracted by Thelma’s emergency, no one notices.  

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Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a strikingly beautiful student, feels compassion for Thelma’s distress and an attraction develops that fills Thelma with the dread of damnation because of her forbidden desire. She tells Anja about how, as a child, her father held her hand in a candle flame to show her what hell feels like. More seizures follow, with even more alarming psychic manifestations (including that cliché of intense psychological distress, a sudden nosebleed) and Anja ends up undergoing tests by puzzled psychiatrists and neurologists.  

Fans of recent horror films relying on kneejerk techniques like those in the “Insidious” franchise might need to adjust their expectations for “Thelma” (though those who enjoyed “Get Out” will feel right at home). The scary moments are there, but they take patience. And then they take you by surprise.

Not only are these moments frightening, but they are troubling in their surreality and their mythic and biblical resonance. At one point Trond tells Thelma that anything she really wants, she can make happen. In most Hollywood movies that is a commonplace bromide; here, it is apocalyptic.

½
THELMA 

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Directed by Joachim Trier. Written by Trier and Eskil Vogt. Starring Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen. At the Brattle. 116 minutes. Unrated (inventive violence, sexual anarchy). In Norwegian, with subtitles. 

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.