It would appear that unconventional coming-of-age movies are something of a trend this year. Those films dominated the 80s and, with some iconic titles in the genre as a whole, it’s a bit of a gambit to explore filmmaking in such a clearly defined space. Thankfully there are some (seemingly) universal experiences that help these films connect with audiences, but also allow for some creativity and originality along the way. Beautifully shot and intimately told, the Norwegian Thelma displays a wonderful imagination and distinctive style which leaves its fingerprint on this breed of film.
For a film like this to work, there’s a lot of pressure on the lead to deliver a strong performance. If you can’t connect on some level, the whole journey dissolves before gaining any traction. In this case, Eili Harboe was magnificent in the eponymous role. The command she displayed over the emotional spectrum paired with her uncanny ability to hone in on the psychological timbre of the script was utterly remarkable. This is a robust and deeply layered character and, perhaps more importantly, she’s a strong female lead in a tangible sense…this isn’t Wonder Woman we’re talking about. Thelma is powerful in her own right, but she’s cursed by it….victimized even. As a result, she’s incredibly exposed and vulnerable. Far from bulletproof in fact. It’s that journey that gives her strength…dealing with her crisis of faith, burgeoning sexuality and her place in the broader world as a whole. In light of all that, Harboe’s performance was even more impressive. For the young actress, it was a star making performance in the truest sense. While it’s unlikely her performance will gain much traction outside of the foreign film circle, it’s definitely one worth seeing and she’s a talent to keep an eye on.
Director Joachim Trier accomplished something special here. Along with his writing partner Eskil Vogt, they created an otherworldly vision that still stays rooted in tangible real-life experiences. Thematically this movie doesn’t shy away from love, sexual discovery, faith and family…they’re all on the table here. However, there’s a current of oppression and control that runs through the story, connecting all the other themes. As a director, Trier’s penchant for visual storytelling, especially when it comes to the internal thought process, plays out beautifully throughout this film. A perfect fit. Not only is there a distinct aesthetic tone throughout, but the film’s pace reflects the stress unfolding on screen. The screenplay is well designed to take advantage of that pacing and doesn’t have unnecessary dialogue bogging it down. Rather, Trier does a brilliant job letting the images drive the narrative as much as possible. This is the story of a young girl who is trying to find her way in the world while trying to grasp a frightening power that dwells inside her, without any real help. Trier and Vogt understood the importance of establishing Thelma as a sympathetic but incredibly dangerous character and the first scene in the film paints this picture emphatically. As I watched, it reminded me of both Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Julia Ducournau’s Raw from earlier this year (both of which I enjoyed) with internal complexity spilling over into everyday life. It’s dark but cerebral in its approach and doesn’t get itself confused with being a horror film…an important distinction to make. Although this is the first film of Trier’s I’ve seen, it would be a good idea to go back and see what I can of his other work. This was a brave and wonderfully stylized approach to contemporary filmmaking, without all the bells and whistles of modern cinema.
Helping to capture that distinct visual style was Cinematographer Jakob Ihre, a long time stalwart of Trier’s. They’s worked together on several other films so it was only natural to bring him in to capture that unique aesthetic. There is a certain coldness, a bluish tint, to the film quality which reinforces the sterility of the outside world. Ihre utilized some clever (what I would imagine) are drone shots to capture wide shots while also including some very powerful closeups, not just of faces. Unfortunately the reliance on natural light did result in some interior scenes coming out shadowy. Overall, I found it to be very well shot both from a framing and creativity standpoint. Ola Fløttum, another longtime cohort of Trier’s, composed a tense, almost transcendental original score. While much of the movie is dominated by its visual components the score is subtle in its brilliance, embodying a wide range of emotion and underscoring the heavier themes of the film.
This was a film I just kinda stumbled across while perusing my watch list. I had pretty much resigned that I’d catch it on a streaming service when available, but it made its way to a local indie movie house not far from me. Without seeing the trailer beforehand or really knowing much about the film going in, I left the theater afterwards feeling very lucky to have watched it. When it comes to genre films, having norms is, generally speaking, a good thing…but so is defying them. Smart, cutting, and completely enchanting…Thelma was so much more than a coming-of-age film and undoubtedly something special.
Recommendation: It’s going to be difficult to find a theater playing this movie, but it’s totally worth it if you can find it. Waiting for it to find you on a streaming service isn’t a bad bet either, and likely won’t lose much of its luster on a smaller screen. Be warned, this isn’t one for those with deeply devout religious views.