Starting at a new school can be hard. You don’t feel like you fit in, you don’t know your way around campus, and the other students give you strange looks when your presence causes the lights to flicker and birds and snakes to freak out.
That’s the predicament facing a young woman in “Thelma,” a foray into the supernatural thriller genre from acclaimed Danish director Joachim Trier. There are a few effective scares and an overall eerie, subdued tone, but what distinguishes “Thelma” is that Trier brings the same depth of characterization and rich imagery that he brought to indie dramas like “Louder than Bombs” and “Oslo August 31st.”
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a shy biology student at an unnamed college in Oslo. There’s a suggestion that she’s deeply religious and ill at ease with her hard-partying classmates, nervous about reaching out and making friends. Every night, she dutifully calls her parents back home (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who grill her on her behavior that day. A confession that she had a beer at a party draws a stern rebuke from her father.
Trier shoots some early scenes from above, looking down on Thelma shuffling alone across the quad, as if the camera were the eye of God itself. Harboe plays Thelma almost as if she were a child, wide-eyed and fearful, an innocent hungry to connect with others.
But there’s something stranger and more sinister going on with Thelma than with the typical homesick college student. She suffers from unexplained seizures that affect the world around her. During one seizure in the college library, the lights flicker on and off, and birds fling themselves into the windows. Is her parents' overbearing concern meant to protect Thelma, or protect those around her?
Thelma doesn’t understand what’s happening any more than the audience does, and the film follows her exploration of these strange phenomena and the powers she can't control.
“Thelma” is reminiscent of Stephen King novels like “Firestarter” or “Carrie,” stories about an ordinary person discovering that she's extraordinary.
But Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt align her supernatural powers with her emotional self-discovery. No matter how crazy or scary things get, “Thelma” is always about a lonely girl learning to break free of her parents. While the protagonists of those King novels often faced a hostile world, Thelma falls in love with a fellow student, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a romance that’s tender amid the film’s more ominous tones. After being repressed her whole life, Thelma finds that desire can be a very powerful, even dangerous, thing.
Trier’s refusal to commit to either making just a character drama or a horror film may be unsatisfying to some, but the mix of elements feels daring and intoxicating. We end up rooting for Thelma to become empowered — even if those powers can have terrible consequences.