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Foreign Film Friday: Thelma review - lesbian supernatural thriller isn't as fun as it sounds

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A supernatural thriller from renowned Norwegian director Joachim Trier, Thelma tell the story of the eponymous character (Eili Harboe) moving away from her conservative Christian family to attend university in Oslo.

It is a bleakly atmospheric film throughout, and the audience is subjected to disjointed visions and revealing flashbacks scattered amongst the surrealist plot. Thelma struggles to make friends until she develops a connection with classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins), which soon progresses into love.

Parallel to these growing feelings, Thelma starts to experience seizures that seem to correlate with the confusion and repression of her feelings. Flashbacks reveal mysterious powers manifesting in Thelma as a child, to devastating effect.

The key allegory throughout condemns the effect that oppressive belief systems have on, in this case, LGB+ youth. Rather than presenting Thelma as a passive victim, however, the film takes us along on Thelma’s power trip that is as emotionally draining and complex for the audience as it is for her. Ultimately, triumph comes with loss, growing up comes with losing something in your relationship with your parents, and finding yourself often comes with a few growing pains (to put it mildly).

Unfortunately, though the message seems sound, it’s somehow both overstated and lost in translation at various points in the film. A terse conversation over dinner sets Thelma, who studies Biology, at odds with her religious father (Henrik Rafaelsen), following the well-trodden path of a science v.s religion debate with a very particular agenda.

Thelma’s gay awakening comes with a slew of horror movie tropes — snakes where snakes have no business being, flickering lights, vivid hallucinations, and worst of all medical trauma. As doctors try to ascertain the cause of her seizures, they must try to induce one by strapping her to a gurney, flashing lights in her face, and forcing her to relive painful memories. 

While by the end of the film the morality of this is affirmed by giving Thelma a happy ending and other people decidedly less happy ones, watching the terrorisation of a young girl due to her sexuality isn’t the fun kind of horror-movie horror at all. The cinematography and pacing throughout is somewhat questionable, but particularly drags in these moments where brevity could have been more powerful.

A generally quiet and contemplative film, the moments of violence are stark and all the more affecting because of it. Ellen Dorrit Peterson plays Thelma’s cold and distant mother with almost disconcerting ease, but again her character arc is confused. The conclusion lets her off the hook by painting her as another victim of Thelma’s father, despite the flashbacks proving that she had as much of an impact on Thelma’s traumatic childhood as he did.

Harboe gives an understated but powerful performance as Thelma, carrying the weight of shame as convincingly as the shyness and the hunger of new love. The most convincing part of the whole film, and the emotional heart of it, is the relationship between Thelma and Anja. Wilkins is casually alluring, and the two of them have a chemistry which lends credence to a film in dire need of it.

If you're looking for a feel good film where gay people don't have to suffer, try Love, Simon instead.

Thelma is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.

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