Why can’t I just be what I am? Why isn’t that possible?
An orchestral crescendo rises and promptly falls as the opening credits drift into a frigid scene. A young six-year-old girl bundled up in a bright pink winter coat and hat, her cheeks and nose flushed in the brisk winter air, trudges across a frozen lake, her father close behind, backpack and rifle slung over his shoulder. The sun has barely risen, the white landscape still soft and new in the morning light. She stares down, enraptured by the fish swimming in circles below the thick ice; Trond—her father (Henrik Rafaelsen)—encourages her onward. Now in a forest covered firmly in snow, Trond pieces together his rifle. A young deer emerges before them, yet Trond turns his rifle on his young daughter who stares in awe at the animal before her. After a loaded moment, he lowers the gun.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier and his longtime screenwriter Eskil Vogt join forces again for this supernatural lesbian drama-thriller. At times, the film falls back onto classic techniques pioneered by Hitchcock and De Palma; at others, it becomes something entirely new and surprising. Thelma suggests that horror doesn’t need a nihilistic or more generically unhappy or heart-tearing horror ending.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a young woman who has recently arrived at university in Oslo where she is studying biology, leaving behind a small isolated home and two overbearing and very religious parents: Trond and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). Thelma is lonely and anxious, constantly repressing her feelings of panic or unease, and, as we learn later, more deeply suppressing relatively traumatic childhood memories, which her parents have succeeded in keeping from her. When Thelma meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), her world drastically shifts on its axis. Meeting and subsequently tripping over her feet into love with Anja chaotically unlocks the supernatural abilities that have been suppressed deep within Thelma, along with forcing her to question everything she has ever known or thought about her sexuality.
Seated at a dimly lit table in a crowded restaurant, Thelma glances to her left and observes a male gay couple holding hands sweetly. When she returns her gaze to her parents, seated across from her, they engage her in a reminiscent conversation about their hometown neighbors. Thelma mentions their religious views, which she disregards as unknowledgeable given their negligence of scientific fact. Her father admonishes her, saying, “You talk as if you know everything.” To which Thelma replies quietly, “I know I don’t.” This theme of religion vs science and knowledge vs the inexplicable is rampant throughout the film. Thelma, who is in university to become a scientist, possesses the most entirely inexplicable supernatural gift (or curse, depending on your perspective).
Being raised (at least from the age of six) intensely religious has deeply left its impact on the way Thelma perceives the world, silver cross dangling from her neck. While hallucinating a sexual encounter with Anja, Thelma orgasmically dreams of malachite-colored serpents sliding their way around her neck and limbs into her mouth. Serpents are both a manifestation of temptation and a manifestation of Thelma’s suppressive thoughts that what she has done with Anja and what she wants to do with Anja, are evil. After she kisses Anja for the first time at the ballet, Thelma sprints back towards religion for comfort. She calls her father and confesses to drinking alcohol as a sort of catharsis; she goes to church, standing immobile in a passionately praying crowd, and she rests her head against the wall of her apartment, desperately praying.
Lord save me from these thoughts. Please, I beg you. Take them away. Take them away.
As the tension heightens and the emotion Thelma experiences intensifies, so do her seizures and the instances of her supernatural abilities. The conflation of female sexuality with supernatural phenomenon and therefore the conflation of the suppression of sexuality through religion to Thelma’s suppression of her own abilities (enforced by her father) is a fascinating point of conversation.
These seizures may be a symptom of something else. A physical reaction to mental suppression.
Thelma’s deep and immediate fascination with Anja is heartbreakingly familiar. Her vehement denial of her feelings in favor of repressing her true sexuality eerily echoes an experience most lesbians can relate to, myself included. One of the reasons this film was so striking to me was that despite the overtly supernatural and superhero-esque plot, Thelma’s experiences as a young gay woman just discovering her sexuality are achingly and intimately recognizable in myself. Thelma going to a party with one of her male friends and purposefully flaunting it to Anja’s face when truly Thelma is trying to convince herself of her heterosexuality is an entirely universal experience of compulsory heterosexuality and suppression. It reminds me of when I would pretend to have crushes on boys in middle school just because I felt so wildly out of place for not having any.
At its core, Thelma is both a fascinatingly detailed character study and an incredibly rich and vibrant lesbian superhero origin story. It is an intense meditation on the way that both science and religion shape us as people, acutely parent-child relationships and an exploration of female sexuality. And yet for all of its brilliance, Thelma is likely one of the most underrated films of 2017.
Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.