Thelma – Film Review – Fantastic Fest 2017
Thelma, the latest film from writer/director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs), feels like a modern-day take on Brian DePalma’s Carrie. If the classic film from 1976 is the old school analog version of the tale, then Thelma is its pretty 4K digital offspring. This comparison isn’t meant to sound dismissive. Far from it. Thelma is an effective, exquisitely-shot genre film. It’s major shortcoming is it’s not terribly original.
Thelma comes from a family of fundamentalist Christians. As she comes of age and begins to mature sexually, she experiences bursts of supernatural capabilities. Medical tests are performed. Brain tumors and epilepsy are ruled out. However, as time passes, Thelma’s seizures become more and more severe, and so do the consequences for the people around her.
Writer/director Joachim Trier misses some opportunities to take his narrative in new directions and leave the trappings of Carrie and other psychic thrillers behind. Thelma’s father is a doctor, but a fundamentalist Christian, not a pairing that we see every day. Unfortunately, Thelma’s religious background and her father’s faith are depicted as little more than character labels, and we never come to understand this dichotomy in her father’s personality.
In one scene, Thelma’s father suggests that her girlfriend only loves her because Thelma is making her feel that way through some type of psychic manipulation. The idea of overcoming someone’s free will to fabricate a relationship has intriguing narrative potential, but the entire concept is little more than a throw away line from her father. Had this theory been floated earlier in the film, a nice sense of paranoia could’ve crept into the film. Are the reactions of the people around Thelma genuine? Or are they simply constructs created by Thelma herself?
The two young actresses who play Thelma and her girlfriend, Anja, (Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins, respectively) deliver strong performances. Their relationship is the centerpiece of the film. If we don’t feel their love for one another, the film is dead right out of the gate. Their commitment to bringing these characters to life creates a believable love story that transcends the familiar genre elements.
If Joachim Trier’s goal was to create a genre film driven by a genuine love story, he certainly succeeded. If his goal was to create an original genre film driven by a love story, he fell short. The deficiencies of Thelma lie in the screenplay and in no other facet of the film. The direction and cinematography in Thelma are every bit as accomplished as in his previous film, Louder Than Bombs. With a few more original ideas in the screenplay, Trier might’ve given us a new genre classic. As it is, he’s still given us a solid piece of entertainment.