College is Ground Zero for experimentation and discovering one’s true self. This notion was explored in gory fashion via last year’s (mildly overpraised) Fantastic Fest hit, Raw. The grounds of an institution for higher education become fertile for those who’ve spent their entire lives up to that point under their parents’ roof, observing laws and values that aren’t their own. It’s a time when you solidify an individual ethical and sexual code, unrestricted by blood and teachers who’ve overseen your every juvenile move.
Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st, Louder Than Bombs) lets us know from the very first scene that there’s something wrong with the titular character of Thelma (Eili Harboe), though we’re not quite sure what it is. As a little girl, her father (Henrik Rafaelsen) takes her out into the woods, ostensibly on a hunting trip. Only once they spot a deer in the snowy wilderness, he waits until she’s transfixed by the cute creature, and aims the rifle squarely at the back of her head. But the man’s unable to pull the trigger, his conscience overtaking whatever deep-seated fear has led them out on this literal winding path.
Jump forward to Thelma’s days at university, and she’s a loner – unable to reconcile the religious objections to partying and sex that’ve been ingrained in her by the very same parents who secretly desired to end her life. Utilizing his usual sense of ethereal, detached dread, Trier builds on Harboe’s blank slate appearance, allowing us to at first cast our own evil aspersions before learning, little by little, that she may be a spiritually malformed product of her own sheltered environment. When another student challenges her about the existence of God, she quizzes him on how his cell phone works, correlating technology and spirituality to confront the condescending notion that many undergrads own while working toward a pithy Bachelor’s: you don’t know everything, despite what you believe. This brash but playful skirmish catches the eye of Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who gravitates toward Thelma’s odd existence.
Or does she? The central mystery of Thelma unfolds with patient precision, as we crosscut between the Oslo now and our girl’s troubled youth. Trier fills in the blanks deliberately, as to keep us engaged until the bitter end (and even then, there are several queries left unanswered). Though this withholding of information is never executed in a way that makes it feel like he’s setting up a twist for twist’s sake. No, Thelma is as much a deft character study as it is a pure genre exercise, with Anja evoking desires in this strange girl she barely recognizes beneath her own cold surface. The chemistry between Harboe and Wilkins is lovely - a delicate view of bisexuality that never becomes leering or exploitive, but tender in how it informs two existences that may not have been fully realized until they crashed into one another. Sex is merely a means to an existential end.
Yet this self-awakening also comes with a rather devastating physical cost, as Thelma is racked with seizures that cause her to believe she’s epileptic. The subsequent tests are a horror show of surreal experimentation, resembling a less schlocky take on similar phenomena in John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (’77). Trier’s wide, brightly lit, strobing style disorients the audience, placing us in the same headspace as his subject, struggling to understand what’s occurring inside of her body. It’s a horrifying ordeal, made all the more unnerving once the supernatural elements of Thelma’s childhood are introduced. Is she possessed? Are the seizures a manifestation of psychic rage? Why are there birds gathering every time one occurs? Trier is painting with an ambivalent camera, letting his longtime DP Jakob Ihre (Oslo, August 31st) float around the enigma, as if the lens is attempting to make up its own mind in the moment.
Many critics have already compared Thelma to Carrie – the eponymous telekinetic ball of raging hormones from Stephen King’s first smash novel. The comparison isn’t off base, as both tales are deftly told examinations of sexual awakening, wearing the sheepskin of genre elements. Yet the movie switches gears around the halfway point, shifting the focus away from its fundamental thesis regarding burgeoning first love, and begins posing interrogations as to whether or not devotion can (or should) be unconditional. In many ways, Thelma’s shaking off of her parents’ rigid godliness allows her to discover a new purpose that she then has to decide for herself what to do with. In short, if the initial sixty minutes are Carrie, then the second sixty are closer to M. Night Shymalan’s Unbreakable (’00) – a hidden origin story whose light and dark hasn’t been decided in such concrete terms as that deconstructionist comic book movie.
The vagueness of Trier’s tale, coupled with Harboe’s distant central performance, may lose certain viewers along the way, but every time the emotional center of Thelma threatens to slip into a hazy abyss, a phenomenal musical cue (composer Ola Fløttum’ score is uniformly excellent) or beguiling shot draws us back in, promising more gorgeously oblique intrigue that’s also calming in an otherworldly manner. Perhaps this is the most peculiar element of Trier’s subdued genre picture – the fact that it lulls you into submission, while simultaneously sliding under the audience’s skin, eager to have them question their own evolution as human beings.