Film: Thelma

Hulu categorizes Thelma (2017) as a “drama, thriller,” but it’s much more than that: a coming-of-age story that seamlessly blends supernatural elements with romance as it charts a young woman’s liberation from repressive, toxic upbringing. Eili Harboe stars as the eponymous protagonist, a lonely biology student in Oslo trying to find her way after moving to the city. It quickly becomes apparent that Thelma has an extremely close, but also complicated, relationship with her overbearing religious parents Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who are clearly nervous about Thelma’s new life. Turns out they have reason: Thelma possesses potent supernatural powers, which trigger in response to her emotional state. Thelma doesn’t understand these powers or have control over them, which becomes apparent when she meets a beautiful chemistry student named Anja (Kaya Wilkins). As the two girls’ friendship escalates unexpectedly into romance, Thelma grates against the narrow-minded beliefs she grew up with, and her powers kick into overdrive—manifesting in the form of debilitating seizures, and leading to both shocking revelations about her past and life-altering conflict with her family.

Thelma is a beautifully made film, thoughtful and subtle, which uses its dark fantasy elements to illuminate the inner struggle of its sympathetic hero. The execution of this metaphorical strategy is nearly flawless, and uncommonly sastifying. Only one aspect of the film troubled me: a major plot thread involves Thelma’s seizures, which she thinks may be epileptic, but happen in concert with her telekinetic freak-outs. In light of this, the film’s frequent use of flickering strobe effects—even in the context of the medical tests Thelma undergoes—seems strangely inconsiderate. (There’s no disclaimer for this; there really should be.) Beyond that glaring oversight, though, Thelma is a deeply empathetic story about what happens when rigid societal belief systems collide with the realities of personal desires and genuine identity. Harboe and Wilkins are appealing leads with real chemistry that the story threatens to shatter, thanks to the controlling toxicity of Thelma’s parents. Trond and Ulli are brought insidiously to life by subtle performances from Rafaelsen and Petersen; Rafaelsen’s infuriatingly disguised villainy is particularly effective in rallying support for Thelma and delivering the means of her personal empowerment. An immersive film with a resonant impact.

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