Joachim Trier’s semi-supernatural psycho-sexual slow-burn thriller is the second European film I’ve seen in a year about sensitive young women who show up at college and have rather bizarre meltdowns. The other was Raw, from Belgium, and this Norwegian entry is decidedly more Nordic — austere, beautifully shot and notably less bloody. But both films have at their cores protagonists struggling to wholly embrace the discovery of self, with all one’s messy desires and inconsistencies.
Here — after a startling prologue — we meet Thelma (Eili Harboe), who is starting university. She is an only child, with overprotective conservatively religious parents. Thelma is immediately out of her element in the flirty, partying student scene, where relinquishing control and arguing about atheism is half the fun. But she is befriended by the lively Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and begins to open up to new experiences and feelings.
While she’s thrilled, these mild transgressions also cause considerable anxiety, as well as stir up repressed guilt and anger, particularly toward her parents. These emotional crises make her physically ill, prone to seizures and other bizarre manifestations. Like other contemporary psychological horror films, Thelma finds elements of this drama rooted in the body and in its relationship to the natural world. (Cue the unsettling trees, birds and snakes.)
Ultimately, aspects of the story — Thelma, her relationship with her father, her illness — will likely confound your expectations. Thelma takes its time, and I found my sympathies and insights shifting throughout. Coming-of-age stories, even off-kilter ones, often have a familiar groove, and I enjoyed this work’s ability to surprise.