When a film critic doesn’t have much to say about a film, they’ll often resort to padding their word count with a play-by-play on the film’s plot. This happens, then that happens, then this happens…and scene. It’s a trick of the trade that’s a sure-fire way to know the movie you’re thinking about seeing is a doozie.
Then again, it could be that recounting the plot is an essential part of understanding the film before you go see it. Knowing what you’re getting into before you go see Mother!, for example, might’ve spared many a movie-goer the headache of that Aronofsky fumble. In Joachim Trier’s newest film, Thelma, it’s best to resist knowing much about this arthouse coming-of-age drama and let it surprise and delight you as it unfolds.
The basics are this: Thelma (Eili Harboe, The Wave) has been raised in a sheltered, conservatively religious family, and as she makes her way from her small town home to her first year in college in the city, she struggles to meet friends and fit in. It doesn’t help that every now and then, she’s victim to unexplained seizures. As they increase in intensity and frequency, Thelma makes every effort to live a normal life filled with classes and a budding social life around the doctors appointments and tests.
There’s a whole layer of Thelma that elevates it from a fairly mainstream journey of self-discovery to a wondrous exploration of finding the truth in the life one is meant to live, from who to love to what success looks like to where to build a future. While it’s tempting to use the phrase “sci-fi” to describe this side of the film, the word feels like too narrow a definition, one that threatens to over-simplify what is a masterfully nuanced, visually gorgeous story. Trier (who co-wrote the film with Eskil Vogt) draws on a supernatural, spiritual theme that makes every one of Thelma’s awakenings that much more meaningful.
Anchored by Harboe’s deft performance, one that channels both a teenager’s aloofness and frustrations while managing to find the maturity to reckon with her new reality, the film is at turns tense and menacing. The depth of Thelma’s growth, from what’s going on inside her head to her budding sexuality, does not come without the pain and heartbreak that all too often accompany such change.
To say more about Thelma would be a disservice. It’s in the discoveries waiting around each thoughtful twist and turn that the film shines, and to deprive you of that would be the worst sin of a film review. Instead, make time for Thelma with an open mind – and heart.