‘Thelma’ Review: A Beautiful and Brilliant Coming-of-Age Origin Story

The filmmaker behind Oslo, August 31st returns with a film that’s both human and more than human.

Coming-of-age films are a fairly common genre and typically follow a similar narrative — young person meets new people, discovers new truths about themselves, and overcomes some obstacle that sees them better suited to face the world ahead. The films vary in regard to degrees of comedy, drama, and more, but that core plot remains. Joachim Trier‘s latest film, Thelma, fits the mold well, but even as it feels familiar it’s also something wholly and beautifully unique.

Thelma (Eili Harboe) is away from home and on her own for the first time attending college, and she’s doing well enough despite obvious feelings of loneliness. The sudden onset of brief yet intense seizures leaves her feeling even more apart from her peers, but she finds a joyful calmness when she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins). The two hit it off and become fast friends with the casually cool Anja introducing the more sheltered Thelma to beer, dance clubs, and eventually to the soft touch of her lips. It’s both everything Thelma wants and everything she’s feared, and overwhelmed by it all, she finds herself retreating to the safety of home.

Of course, home comes with its own concerns. The film opens with Thelma’s father (Henrik Rafaelsen) walking through a winter landscape with a young girl — Thelma as a child? — before pointing a rifle at the back of her head. The mystery behind that action comes back into focus in the film’s back half, and it’s to the credit of both the script (by Trier and frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt) and the performances that the strangeness of that scene may have slipped viewers’ minds amid Thelma’s bumpy romance and moments of self-discovery.

To say more about the story would rob viewers of all that Thelma’s journey entails (and all that Thelma entails) and that would be a shame as truly stunning genre-benders are a real rarity. The film takes its time with the story and never feels rushed in its telling, and the skills that Vogt’s displayed previously in Reprise and Oslo, August 31st — most notably an eye for sadness and beauty in equal measure — all come into play even as odd and unnatural elements are added into the mix.

Harboe carries much of the film on her small shoulders and wide open eyes, and she makes her every experience a tangible one for viewers. Her seizures leave us shaken, her pangs of love leave a nervousness in our gut, and her worries as to what’s happening become our own. She gets us in her corner early on, and her journey towards recognizing just what she’s capable of quickly becomes one worth supporting… for both better and worse. Like all women, she’s stronger than society wants her to realize. Like some women, she’s prepared to prove it.

The film explores themes of oppression too, both through Thelma’s strict, religious parents and the idea that women should restrain their abilities and keep their head down. Neither element is overdone — the opposite may in fact be true — and it’s refreshing seeing characters strong in their faith who aren’t presented as cliched in their presumed authority. Both Thelma’s father and mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) are firm in their beliefs but capable of exhibiting intelligence and understanding in dealing with their increasingly inquisitive daughter. They hover, even from afar, but they’re not villains, and that realization adds unexpected weight to what follows.

Thelma is something truly special as both a familiar coming-of-age tale and a unique story about a young woman making her own way in — and with — the world.

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