Fantastic Fest: Superpowers Become A Coming-Of-Age Metaphor In ‘Thelma’ (FILM REVIEW)

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When talking about co-writer/director Joachim Trier’s coming-of-age parable Thelma, it’s hard not to recall Julia Ducourno’s Raw, a highlight of Fantastic Fest’s 2016 lineup (and one of my favorites movies from last year). Both tell the story of sheltered young women who, after departing from their families to attend secondary school, come into their own via startling metaphor. In Raw, Justine (Garance Marillier) was a life-long vegetarian before tasting raw meat in a hazing ritual. In Thelma, one of this year’s Fantastic Fest selections, Eili Harboe’s titular character is a quiet, church-going Christian who gets the full-blown college awakening through alcohol, cigarettes, and affections toward her classmate, Anya (Kaya Wilkins).

Whereas Raw chose cannibalism as its allegory, Thelma takes a much different approach, endowing its character with terrifying abilities. It opens with a six-year-old Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg), walking across a frozen lake with her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). As they enter the woods on the far side, the two spot a young deer. The father, carefully sliding the rifle off his shoulder takes aim at the deer, before moving the barrel to his young daughter’s head. He hesitates, the deer runs off, and the two start to forage back to their home, the young Thelma unaware of what nearly transpired. 

Jumping forward to the present day, Thelma is regaling her parents with stories from school, lightly mocking people she’s met who ignore science and believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old. While she smirks at her own sense of newfound, learned smugness, she’s scolded by her father, who sternly reminds her that no one knows where life began, and she shouldn’t be so smug in belittling what others believe. Thelma recoils, then later apologizes to him for her arrogance.

While her parents’ influence still hangs heavy on Thelma, she calls them every day to tell them about her day, she begins to take part in the reckless abandon of college life. After some light stalking of Anya on social media, she purposefully runs into her and her friends at a nearby bar, where they balk at the fact she’s drinking “just Coke” instead of cocktails. Thelma seems unbothered by their reaction, calmly explaining that she was raised in a religious household.

Eventually, Thelma wains. She tries beer when out at parties — her first leading to a tearful confession to her father, who relents in telling her that one beer might not be so bad. Feeling some relief over her father’s tentative approval, Thelma continues to indulge in all the familiar vices akin to the college experience.

During this time, however, we keep seeing glimpses of Thelma’s vaguely defined, yet quite powerful abilities, each time earmarked by her succumbing to violent seizures — some of which have inexplicable effects on the world around her. The more we see what Thelma is capable of, the more the film’s opening sequence starts to make sense — which echoes The Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life,” which also featured an all-powerful child that drew the ire of the adults around him.

Though it flirts with leanings toward supernatural horror, Thelma is much more an intoxicating character study of what it means to come into oneself, metaphorical superpowers and all.

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