Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Ingenuity is crucial when it comes to either deconstructing or reinventing a well-known, much loved genre. It takes more than just adding in atmospheric tension. An electric current needs to be generated. Director Joachim Trier’s THELMA attempts this and finds a modicum of success, crafting the lowest of the low-key, slowest of the slow-burning superhero films ever created. While that disclaimer would be just fine, the fact that it takes far too long to get to the intensely clever idea’s spark (a little over an hour, in fact), the final fifty minutes never quite makes up for the fact that it started with a time suck.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is just your average college student. Or is she? She’s off at university, alone for the first time, after living an extremely sheltered life with her wheelchair-bound mom (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and overbearing dad (Henrik Rafaelsen). Her conservative upbringing makes her the outsider with most of her peers. However, she does find an instant, unmistakable connection with fellow co-ed Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Anja ignites feelings deep down inside – feelings of which Thelma’s oppressive religious beliefs are in direct conflict. When she thinks about their love, her swirling emotions inside manifest as debilitating seizures that – here’s the kicker – morph into a uncontrollable metaphysical response, summoning birds to their deaths, flickering electricity and breaking glass. Thelma begins to suspect these fits are the symptom of something greater – and it’s only then where she uncovers a newfound, latent power.
Trier’s feature straddles the line between psychological horror and superhero genres. And he, along with co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt, harness the best ingredients from both. Yet it’s all too oddly familiar to sustain a too long run time. It’s in dire need of a 30 min trim. Sad to say, this is a coming-of-age story you’ve seen before. THELMA could very much be a spiritual successor to CARRIE. Though I adore the passionate sentiment behind the picture, the filmmakers don’t do much to reinvent the wheel. They add some indelible, haunting predator/ prey motifs to sink into, however, it’s all terribly expected.
The narrative plays the allegorical connotations of a woman discovering her own agency predictably on the nose. The filmmakers’ visual interpretation of how love and drugs affect us is a literal contextualization of clichéd notions. Intense love of that kind makes us quake internally, so externally Thelma is stricken by the shakes. Drugs can make one feel lit from within, so he shows Thelma seeing partygoers with their skin lit up. Despite these being aesthetically gorgeous, slick sequences, a deeper commentary here is missing.
It’s an admirable, heartening notion that Trier created a female-driven, super feminist project like this – one that’s disarmingly resonant, even jaw-dropping in its final act. That said, overall this still comes up a bit short, lacking in a more aching, guttural feminine perspective and profundity. Listen, in lesser hands, no doubt this narrative would be botched. At least this comes from the respectful mind of a very capable director.
THELMA is now playing in New York. It played AFI Fest on November 11 and 13. It opens in Los Angeles on November 24.