It’s perhaps difficult to parse writer/director Joachim Trier’s exact intent in making Thelma, a film which is one part supernatural thriller, another superhero origin story, and yes, a third part coming-of-age repressed lesbian romance/family drama. Thought it can be guessed that maybe the unholy and inherently messy mix of genres would appeal to a noted Arnaud Desplechin fan like Trier, yet at the end of the day, you ask why isn’t the actual film that came out of this wild ambition anywhere near as compelling as that suggests?
Rather Thelma plays like a Wachowski sisters or M. Night Shyamalan movie minus any of the earnestness or fun. Too stepped into the portentous withholding art film sphere, the experience of watching it just begins to feel like gradually waiting for some kind of reveal involving murder or abuse, the tenet of too many modern European and American films. Trier’s past works were sensitive dramas with a certain tendency towards festival-friendly flourishes, yet still they more often than not complemented rather than distracted from his well-honed dramatist instincts. The disappointment with this film is in how it feels like a betrayal of the skills which made him stand out amongst many of his contemporaries. Empathy is in sight with the film’s subject, but never really felt due to a certain distance.
Though, at least it starts with maybe the right idea; a Christian country girl living in the city for university and navigating within the millennial experience her sexual identity. The environment of Instagram crushes and weekend parties scored to diegetic synth pop feels totally right for Trier’s sensibilities. Romance strikes when the titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) quickly catches the eye of an attractive classmate, Anja (Okay Kaya). Seeming like her first sexual experience, it triggers both epileptic fits and something far more sinister, which will likely of course involve her past as well as her quietly tense relationship with parents Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen).
So masses of computer generated ravens, slithering symbolic snakes, and a couple strobe light sequences later we arrive at a conclusion we could’ve guessed from the first scene. It can only be said that the film takes all of its bending of physics and matter to a frankly unimaginative place. The chief problem is that it can’t add any real mania to its surroundings to make its genre-trappings feel like anything more than a calculation for some kind of crossover appeal. None of the stabs at horror or science-fiction imagery come across as anything more than one obvious psychological signifier after another.
It’s hard not to feel like the Oslo, August 31st director isn’t so much punching outside his weight as he is simply totally lost at sea. Getting the requisite genre exercise that befalls so many talented directors out of his system, you just hope he doesn’t forget entirely about the sensibilities that got him where he was in the first place, because the last thing the film world needs is another phony European director just looking to cross over to make more lousy Hollywood product.
Thelma premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens on November 10.