Thelma is neither horror in the true sense, nor is it a thriller, but a fitting mix of both.
A still from Thelma | Twitter
Last Updated: 06.31 PM, Oct 06, 2021
Horror films typically resort to histrionics to induce fear in the audiences. That’s dull and lazy, and these effects often overshadow the plot that doesn’t have much to offer in the first place (Think The Conjuring, Insidious, Annabelle). But not Thelma; it’s not horror in the true sense, neither is it a thriller, but a fitting mix of both.
The film opens to a quiet, snowy locale, where a young Thelma is on a hunt with her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen). They walk across a frozen lake into the woods and spot a deer that enamours the girl. While she gazes at the deer — oblivious to everything around her — her father pulls out his gun and points it on her. It’s disconcerting, this scene; after all, why would he want to kill his six-year-old child? It also lays down the foundation of what may happen next.
The narrative then shifts a few years forward in a college campus. It’s grey and dreary as the camera draws closer to a grown-up Thelma (Eili Harboe), all alone amid the bustle of college. She hasn’t made any friends yet, the only social contact she has is with her parents, who know her class schedule and often call to check in. Initially it all seems innocuous: she is the only child, and it could have been a case of empty nest syndrome with the parents. But of course that’s not it. Thelma’s been raised in a strictly Christian home where the doctrines of religion prevail over everything else. To a South Asian though, a South Asian woman especially, this parental monitoring and regulation is not normal. It’s almost considered a rite of passage.
There’s always a sense of foreboding in the initial parts of the story, and your instinct is correct. One day she experiences a seizure in the middle of a packed library that creepily corresponds to a pack of birds blindingly flying into the room’s glass panes.The doctors she visits suspect epilepsy, but eventually all tests reveal that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her. One doctor speculates that maybe her condition is caused by stress or emotional suppression.
And it is. She is drawn to a fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who easily assimilates her into her friend group. The lifestyle they lead (the drinking, occasional use of recreational drugs, dorm parties) and her feelings for Anja go against the diktats of her upbringing. The seizures, the telekinesis, the visions and dreams that she cannot tell apart from reality are all manifestations of this suppression. To me, this seemed similar to “displacement”, one of the many defence mechanisms proposed by Freud (though Freud’s theories have now been debunked). Thelma investigates the roots of these powers, though this bit is not as engrossing as it may sound on paper. They were passed down to her from her grandmother, who is catatonic under heavy medication in a nursing home.
Thelma starts off as isolated at home and at college, and this newfound power puts her right back into her shell. She realises she’s different — not in a way that makes her stand out, and that’s scary. She’s alone and she has no one to turn to for help. That’s even scarier. And that’s not unlike the experience of being an adolescent or a young adult. Thelma has a full plate — overbearing parents, guilt and anger from defying her learned values, her sexual awakening, and this power that she does not know how to control. The film reminded me of Carrie, though its treatment was far more pulpy and melodramatic.
Though Thelma is told from the heroine’s perspective, writers Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt don’t really rely on dialogues or even an internal monologue to relay what she is thinking or experiencing. It’s the imagery, the colour scheme, the background music, dream sequences and silences that aid the story. And it’s a difficult feat to pull off whilst maintaining the momentum of the story. The camera closes in and out of the object in its line of vision throughout the narrative that can throw the audience off-balance, not unlike the inner workings of our heroine.
Thelma is not scary enough to make you want to sleep with the lights on at night, but it is unnerving. There are the rare few sequences (I won’t tell which) that are horrifying. Then there are some that are pitiful — when Thelma visits a bar frequented by Anja and doesn’t know how to approach her so she goes straight to the bathroom or when she drinks herself dizzy at a party just so she can be a part of the crowd. Harboe is persuasive in her role as the awkward, nondescript girl whose insides are most likely always turning over with so much turmoil.
As the film inches toward the climax, it's laid out why Thelma's father had the momentary urge to kill her, and why her parents continually want to control her. Their attitude is symbolic of how women are oppressed, their basic desires are quashed; how a woman in charge of her agency is a frightening prospect. Have we not seen women who want to carve a space for themselves constantly at odds with a society that does not let them?
All the while the story neared its end I wondered if I would be left disappointed. A lot of films start off meaty but end at a tepid note. Not this one. Thelma, in spite of all the darkness in her and the film, ends at a somewhat optimistic note with our heroine embracing her agency.
Thelma is worth a watch – it’s a peep into a different, quiet kind of horror.