Joachim Trier is an anomaly of a director. He makes intimate, realist character studies that effectively utilise immaculately stylish visuals, which in turn helps elevate his material to feel more cinematic than any of his dramatic contemporaries. His visual sensibilities make him a keen fit for genre filmmaking, so it’s a surprise that it has taken him this long to create something like Thelma, a supernatural drama that is tailor made for a filmmaker who cares equally about visual stylisation and creating believable, flawed and utterly empathetic characters. Despite a narrative that could easily be interpreted as a full blown sci-fi or horror, his film is a humanist drama first and foremost - Trier and his regular co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt once again showing a gift for never judging their flawed characters, or transforming them into mere victims of their own actions.
Eili Harboe stars in the titular role of Thelma, a Christian who has just moved away from her family home for the first time to commence university studies in Oslo. She’s a quiet, unassuming young woman who is struggling to fit in - the first major impression she makes being the fallout from what appears to be an epileptic seizure in the campus library. After recovering, she bumps into Anja (Kaya Wilkins) the girl who helped get her medical assistance, and the two become acquaintances. Slowly, she begins to develop feelings for Anja, which are unexpectedly reciprocated; but as she starts remembering past childhood traumas, she realises the seizures she has are manifestations of some indescribable supernatural power she can barely control, that have the ability to suddenly grant her anything she desires in that moment. As a Christian girl, a repression of her sexual identity doesn’t sit easily with this power.
Even though they deal with realist narratives, Trier and Vogt have a tendency for intricate story structures that build up the complexity of the simple emotional tales they tell. In terms of storytelling, Thelma is one of their most straightforward collaborations; flashbacks are used sparingly, with the audience only granted deeper access into Thelma’s powerful mind as she begins to understand it herself. Here, the supernatural abilities work equally well taken at face value, as well as acting impeccably as an (admittedly on the nose) allegory for LGBT self acceptance - is there a better metaphor for discovering these hidden feelings than “destructive powers that can instantly remove the ones you love from your life”?
Despite the mysterious, science fiction inflected storyline, special effects are used sparingly and all performances are perfectly underplayed. It’s the rare film within this genre where disbelief doesn’t need to be suspended because of how grounded in an aching, empathetic emotion the story is. In the lead role, Harboe is charmingly awkward, Trier’s skill for non-judgemental characterisation making her feel all the more empathetic as we gradually learn about the acts she has unwillingly committed throughout her life. There’s an inherent innocent sweetness in Harboe’s portrayal of the character, no matter whether she’s embarrassing a fellow student who tries to mansplain religion to her, or suffering from the fallout of a very public supernatural outburst, she remains fully grounded. You feel as sad for her as you do the people she accidentally wipes out of her life - a tricky feat to pull off, that Trier and Vogt’s screenplay makes effortless.
There may be a grounded approach to the storytelling here, but there is still a keenly detailed visual grandeur throughout, albeit not of the kind you’d commonly expect from a film within this genre. Cinematographer Jakob Ihre introduces us to Thelma in the present day via a slowly swooping shot down to the university campus, in a manner that recalls the opening shot of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation; you could argue that these two films are comparable due to the sense of paranoia, but Coppola’s film is overt political paranoia, whereas Trier’s film is a bubbling undercurrent of emotional anxiety. Elsewhere, the majority of the effects are utilised when Ihre showcases Thelma receiving treatment by doubling down on the strobe lighting - needless to say, not only should this film never be seen by epileptics, it shouldn’t be allowed within 100 feet of them either.
Thelma is a subtle, heartfelt film for those who prefer their science fiction and horror narratives to feel soulful and painfully human. It’s certainly Joachim Trier’s most ambitious film to date but when delivered with a beautifully observed understatement as it is here, it fits perfectly into a filmography defined by exploring the minds of believably flawed characters.