'Thelma' Is A Cathartic, Supernatural Coming-Of-Age Tale [Fantastic Fest]

Joachim Trier's Thelma begins with one of the most haunting opening scenes in recent memory. A young girl and her father trek out into the wilderness surrounding their home, crossing over a frozen lake and entering the woods. The father is armed with a rifle. When his young daughter isn't looking, he takes aim at the back of her head. He hesitates. He doesn't pull the trigger.

And then we leap forward a number of years and Thelma (Eili Harboe) is heading to university in Oslo and learns that something is wrong with her. Or right with her. Because Thelma has supernatural abilities. And like any kid heading off to college for the first time, she's got some serious stuff to figure out.

The horror genre has always been a powerful sandbox for coming-of-age stories, a place where the fears and anxieties of young people can take on literal and dangerous forms. But while Thelma may spy the likes of It and Monster Squad across the room at the family reunion, it is much closer with Let the Right One In and Raw, recent movies that refuse to hold their brutal punches before they even introduce the supernatural elements. Much like how those films used vampirism and cannibalism to explore sisterhood and sexuality and the emotional scars that come with leaving childhood behind, Thelma's horror serves a very specific and very pointed thematic purpose. And it does it all while also being captivating and creepy and disconcerting.

While Trier is unashamed of the genre he's operating in (something that cannot be said for every respected drama director who decides to get their hands bloody in a horror movie), the calculated and deliberate style of his previous work remains on full display in Thelma. The film takes its time getting to where it needs to go – focus is on character and tone, gently sketching a small ensemble of characters and establishing their world and holding the more overt genre jabs for the back half of the film. There are shades of Carrie here, but Trier is less interested in supernatural abilities being the result of an awakened anger. In Thelma, they are the side effect of self-discovery, of embracing your true self and finding a place that makes you feel complete.

That's a bumpy road, however, and Thelma reveals its cards one-by-one. The title character's abilities, which she initially cannot control, arrive in subtle and sometimes horrifying ways. Stress in a college library redirects a flock of birds. Moments of sexual awakening lead to more frightening results. And as Thelma falls for a fellow student named Anja (Kaya Wilkins), the film's central metaphor crystalizes. This is the story of a young woman grappling with her reality-altering powers, but it is also the story of a young woman discovering her queer identity and breaking loose from a religious family who have actively worked to suppress her urges, to train her to act against her feelings and desires. Some may call Thelma a witch. Some may call her a telekinetic. But both of those descriptions are tied to her repressed sexual identity, which blossoms when she's away from home and exposed to people and places and ideas that fundamentally change her. Thelma is a tale of sexual awakening, of the guilt and shame that accompanies the betrayal of your parents and the long-held beliefs they tried to instill in you. It's a movie that hits hard as a LGBTQ coming-of-age tale even before objects start moving on their own.

However, Thelma is ultimately a horror movie, albeit one that values quiet dread over more overt terror. The depiction of Thelma's powers, and of her low-key retribution against those who want to stifle and destroy her, is quiet and weird and often painful. The people in Thelma's life, from her new girlfriend to her well-meaning parents, are painted with a gentle brush. The film refuses to demonize any side and even finds sympathy for those who find Thelma wicked. Is Thelma's odd nature, her powers and her sexuality, something that society must accommodate or something that can damage family units as we know them? The fact that I found Thelma's journey cathartic and powerful says a lot about me. I'm sure others will disagree. To the film's credit, there is never any doubt that her parents do not care about her...but what happens when a supposedly loving parent refuses to let a child find sexual and emotional fulfillment?

The film's conclusion, where progress (Witchcraft? Telekinetic powers?) butts heads with tradition (Religion? More traditional values?) is bound to inspire conversations, to get people outside the theater to discuss the nuances of the choices each character makes. Thelma invites your personal baggage to the party and demands that you share it with others.

At the center of it all is Eili Harboe, giving a powerhouse performance as a young woman attempting to (literally) survive her first year of college, that awkward period where young people traditionally reinvent themselves. Even when the film tips toward the outrageous, Harboe grounds it. Vulnerable and meek and curious and sweet and funny and sexy, Thelma is a young woman in transition, a horror movie heroine so grounded in reality that she breaks free of any genre constraints. This isn't Norwegian arthouse Carrie. This is just...well, Thelma.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10