There exists in the human fabric dark thoughts and desires we won't allow ourselves to truly feel. But what if there were something within us that indulged these feelings and manifested them into terrifying reality? This is the power—or curse, as it were—of the titular Thelma (Elli Harboe), in the film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs), perhaps one of the most subtly gripping movies this year.
Thelma is young and off to college; a bit of a bumpkin living in the big city for the first time. But when she begins suffering seizures with no apparent ties to epilepsy, she also starts to notice small, nearly indiscernible events that occur nearby. These things start inconsequentially enough and eventually might have seemed more pressing if Thelma weren't falling in love with another young woman from school (Kaya Wilkins) and emerging from a couple decades' worth of religious oppression at the hands of her parents, a doctor father (Henrik Rafaelson) and wheelchair-bound mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen); the victims of some nameless looming accident from long ago that Thelma has blocked out from her memory.
Trier obviously relishes the slow burn, to the point we wonder if he's trying to make us lose our grip on reality along with Thelma. Pacing thus becomes all the more important, and we repeatedly believe throughout the film's movements that maybe things aren't what they seem and we're simply following a normal young woman through coincidences and anxiety issues. Harboe (The Wave) proves capable as Thelma, especially as concerns that she just isn't likable fade into abject knowledge of that fact; it isn't so much that she's evil, just too willing to indulge her deepest darkness.
If it feels too slow, this is deliberate, and trust us—it's leading to one of the most shocking moments ever committed to film. Which makes Thelma a deft combination of thriller, sci-fi, horror and Twilight Zone for fans of any of the above willing to put in the effort to reach the payoff. It's ultimately so worth it.
+Shocking and gripping
-Perhaps too slow a burn for some
Directed by Trier
With Harboe, Wilkins, Rafaelson and Petersen
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 116 min.