Movie Review – Thelma

Thelma (2017)
Written by Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier
Directed by Joachim Trier

thelma

Thelma grew up in a fiercely sheltered and religious home. Now she’s eighteen and attending university, out on her own for the first time. Most of her days are spent trekking from class to class and then in her apartment alone, eating dinner. This changes when she meets Anja, a fellow student that has concerns for Thelma after witnessing one of her seizures. The women begin an intense friendship which suddenly takes a turn for the serious after some wishful thinking on the part of Thelma. Questions arise about what is causing Thelma’s headaches and seizures and what happened in her childhood home years prior. The revelation of these things will shake the foundation of this woman’s life forever.

Thelma is a remake of Carrie through a non-American perspective, specifically Norway. You have the religiosity of the parents used to suppress the young woman. There’s also the exploration of sexual development paralleled with the awakening of her powers. However, Thelma handles all of this with much more nuance which leads to a more engrossing film. This is the Carrie remake that should have been made all along rather than a recreation of De Palma’s movie. Taking the core themes and concepts and weaving them into a contemporary setting leads to a powerful reimagining of what Carrie is about.

Thelma is a slow burn horror film, taking its time to develop not just the title character but her relationship with Anja as well. There is no doubting Thelma’s sexuality, she is gay and struggling with those feelings based on her upbringing. However, there are lots of ambiguous details to explore. First, what exactly is the religious education Thelma experienced? A dinner conversation with her parents early in the movie is reframed after the film’s conclusions. There’s some doubt as to why she was raised with such restrictive beliefs, having no friends outside the home and being taught that restraint, particularly in regards to sex and drugs was of the utmost priority. Thelma’s parents speak to her with a cold distance, almost a fearful reverence, hinting at what they know about her.

The catalyst for her relationship with Anja is also an intentionally vague point. As Thelma dreams about Anja, she finds her classmate walking to her apartment in the middle of the night. Anja has trouble understanding why she decided to do this and later she breaks up with her boyfriend off-camera, apparently to be with Thelma. The final moment of the film raises a big question mark, pivoting between Thelma’s mind and wishes and a moment made a reality. Does Anja love Thelma to the depth that is happening in front of us? Is this Anja or a dream manifested for the lonely Thelma? The film wisely chooses to leave these questions open for us to ponder.

The horrific moments aren’t voluminous, but when the film reaches those heights, they are genuinely chilling. There’s a clever mix of sexuality and horror, mostly from the inner world of Thelma. Because the story is from the point of view of a teenage woman, there’s a constant sense of dread surrounding her sexual awakening. You genuinely feel her shame for giving in to her feelings for Thelma, especially if you grew up in a strict religious family. There’s never a loud, garish Carrie moment for Thelma. She does have a third act moment where she becomes fully aware of her power, but it is quiet and beautifully horrific. Thelma lives in that rare space of genuinely terrifying horror figures yet also profoundly empathetic.

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