Thelma Review: Blue is an ‘Unbreakable’ Color

Photo Credit:

The simplest way to describe Thelma is as taking a traditional superhero origin story and a restrained LGBTQ romance and smashing them together and giving the result and arthouse spin. But Norwegian director Joachim Trier has decidedly not made a simple film. At its most effective, Thelma is a beautifully shot, thoughtful, tense examination of the dangers and consequences of repression explored through the lens of a psychological thriller that just happens to have a superpowered queer female lead.

A Disney-Marvel product this is not; in terms of how the film handles its supernatural aspects, its probably closest to M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable or Bryan Singer’s original X-Men. But despite her abilities, this is not a superhero film.

Thelma starts with the titular character (Eili Harboe, magnificently restrained and nuanced) moving to Oslo for school, finally escaping the grip of her overprotective and very Catholic parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen). She still has to talk to them over the phone every day, and when she misses their calls, they get upset and purposefully guilt her. At first, Thelma spends most of her time by herself. She doesn’t really drink or try to date, but she gets some unwanted attention when she has a seizure in class, which is couple with birds inexplicably flying into the window of the classroom to die.

Keeping her odd medical issues hidden from her parents, the weight of her problems ends up falling on Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a classmate she more than befriends, disrupting her traditionally Catholic sensibilities. This first act of the film is by far the strongest, as Trier so vividly draws Thelma, making her, frankly, one of the most human characters in cinema this year. An early scene in which her parents come to visit in her first term sees her father scold her for carrying herself as if she has all the answers to the universe, and is thus smarter than her peers and those she left back in Norway’s back woods. This exchange really captures the high highs and the low lows of growing into who you’re going to become, but it also seeds the film with a layer of tension as to what is and what isn’t contributing to Thelma’s overall wellbeing.

But as the vague allusions and physical actions of her powers start to come faster, the film settles into a groove that robs it of most of what made it interesting for a while. The middle is messy and boring, including unnecessary exposition and backstory to flesh out the story’s sci-fi elements. It gets to the point where it enacts a terrible trope from the run-of-the-mill PG-13 horror flick, in which the lead investigates the history of the supernatural happenings around them, even eventually leading to a mental health facility. Here Thelma‘s plot gets in the way of the genuine interest surrounding her emotional battle to retain pieces of her upbringing while becoming something else entirely, only made worse by the dramatic progression of her powers. It also hurts that Anja disappears for too much of the story here.

The third act manages to turn things around, however, finding a way to end Thelma’s story in a thrilling manner that still only manages to feel like the beginning (in terms of the film’s coming of age qualities; don’t expect Thelma: The Winter Soldier in summer 2019). But there’s also complication in its resolution, tying an uncertain reality and a legitimate question of intent—and even consent to a degree—that sends this chilling tale off on a note that rhymes with the darkness it rode in on. The pieces are all present for Thelma to be billed as a truly original genre film, but there are a few extraneous pieces also present to bring the story into a more familiar shell. In a lot of ways, this is one of the most unique films of the year. And those are plentiful enough to far outweigh the parts that make it just like a lot of films from a lot of years. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *