Starring Elie Harboe. In Norwegian, with English subtitles. Rated PG
A seemingly capable young woman begins university in Oslo, far from her parents’ watchful eyes for the first time. Raised in the country as a soft-spoken Christian with few social skills, Thelma (up-and-coming Eili Harboe) frequently calls her sensitive doctor dad (Henrik Rafaelson) for advice about booze and friends. However, as presaged in the film’s disturbing preamble, her folks’ attempts at remote control involve more than the usual empty-nest anxiety.
Our young protagonist has typical problems fitting in, but everything erupts when she bumps into a willowy fellow student (Norwegian-American model and songwriter Kaya Wilkins) who awakens her to various things she’s not supposed to be thinking about. Whether because of faulty wiring or a lifetime of repression—we’re never really sure in this taut, if austere, thriller—her response is to fall into epilepsylike fits that make no medical sense. Even harder to fathom is the fact that lights flicker and crows hurl themselves at plate-glass windows when Thelma is, um, aroused.
The film is an artfully measured step towards the uncanny for Danish-born writer-director Joachim Trier, who took more naturalistic approaches to depression, grief, and isolation in the breakthrough Oslo, August 31st and his English-language follow-up, Louder Than Bombs. Working with his usual collaborators, including writer Eskil Vogt and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, Trier has fashioned a paranormal mystery in which coming-of-age and coming-out tales are combined and then given jolts of sex, religion, and science, complete with conscious nods to genre classics like Carrie and The Birds.
The exquisitely shot Thelma operates on a level of dreamlike metaphor in which the basic notion of escaping the grip of childhood is mixed with dark imagery of infanticide, self-destruction, and plain old poor impulse control—with a special emphasis on the power of water and electricity. Oh, and did I mention snakes? The director’s confident sense of tonal contrast demands a lot from his appealing lead, who was also in the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave, and she delivers. Here, a tsunami of emotions is channelled into a stylishly subtle puzzle that rewards patience with odd kicks and unsettling ideas.