What better way for a young Norwegian lass to spend a day than to accompany her papa on an outing across a frozen lake? That’s how little Thelma joins her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), who gradually falls behind and levels his hunting rifle at a deer. Then he turns the barrel toward his daughter’s head, his eyes filled with hesitation.
It’s a suitably chilling opening for a weirdly enthralling supernatural thriller. In impressionistic, emotional ways “Thelma” slowly adds piece to piece in the puzzle, revealing why Trond, a devout Christian, family man and general-practice doctor, put a gunsight on his daughter. It’s an allegorical narrative about God and gender, a comment about morality and repressed desire, a warning about good parenting gone bad, and an object lesson in how a deliberately elusive plot can generate heightened anxiety.
Proceeding with an exquisite slow burn, writer/director Joachim Trier charts the character’s gradually evolving nature. In her freshman year at college in Oslo, far from her rural home, Thelma (doe-like Eili Harboe) is a dutiful teen. Studious, chaste and wallflower shy, she receives her first public attention during a traumatic trembling fit in the crowded campus library. For the first time, she is not lost and alone as students gather around to help. What they don’t apparently notice is that while she convulses on the floor, birds begin crashing into the windows.
“There’s something wrong with me,” she worries. It’s nothing that medical technology can diagnose, as ultramodern examinations add a science fiction feel to the proceedings. Perhaps it’s mythological, reflecting the film’s imagery of dangerous bodies of water, ice and flame.
As the story proceeds, Thelma experiences uncanny seizures and visions, encounters her first romance and faithfully remains submissive as her protective, religiously strict parents keep regular phone contact. Their conversations have the tone of awkward confessions. Thelma conceals both her growing feelings of true love for Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and her fear of facing powers that may control her – or be within her control.
Her parents seem clinically observant, but utterly lacking in a good bedside manner, with an inability to understand or appreciate the inner and outer struggles she is experiencing. As the story deepens. we discover their own trove of dark secrets, and metaphorically caged birds go free.
Borrowing inventively from Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, “Thelma” is a handsome widescreen chiller, not entirely original, but undeniably uncanny.