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Thelma

Year: 2017
Production Co: Motlys
Director: Joachim Trier
Writer: Eskil Vogt/Joachim Trier
Cast: Eilie Harboe, Kaya Wilkins

The last film I wrote a review for was Iranian horror film Under the Shadow, and while it seems the only similarities between a telekinetic teenage girl in modern day Oslo and a woman and her infant daughter haunted by a ghost in late 1980s Tehran is that they're not in English, there's an undeniable parallel.

Both have a fairly basic horror genre premise (ghosts and psychic powers), but both have such a high sheen quality and such great design and performances you might mistake them for intensley personal domestic dramas.

Like Under the Shadow might have been a metaphor for some aspect of the Iran/Iraq war it was set in, Thelma evoked the explosive mental and emotional power of sexual awakening, the tension of denying developing homosexuality or the psychological turmoil between religious restraint and biological imperative.

In fact the strongest subtext I saw (or maybe I just wanted it to be there) was that of the socio-political fear of female sexual power and desire, and how it co-opts even women themselves to fear their own power.

Thelma (Eili Harboe, so much like a young Taylor Swift it's uncanny) leaves her extremely pious religious parents to go to university, an environment of freedom, hedonism and liberation she's equally fascinated by and unsure of. But her new lifestyle is accompanied by the sudden and terrifying onset of what looks like epilepsy one day when she collapses in the library while studying in the grip of a seizure.

Everything goes up a notch when she meets the beautiful, free-spirited Anja (Kaya Wilkins). It's not clear whether Thelma has already realised she's gay, but her strict upbringing and the awareness of what her parents would think of her attraction to Anja causes unbearable tension in her.

While Thelma enters a period of intense study by doctors for her blackouts, everyday life becomes harder to deal with. The fits continue. She finds her hand shaking at inopportune moments, followed by overwhelming sickness. And all the while, strange things start happening around her like lights flickering for no reason and birds crashing into windows in rooms she's in. When Anja returns her affection, Thelma is as overjoyed as she is conflicted as everything gets worse.

Without the supernatural elements it'd be a well made and quite beautiful story about a young woman finding out who she is and embracing her true self. But when they come they're as creepy and effective as they need to be to align with the studious, restrained mood, cinematography and palette of the rest of the film. Of particular note is the soundtrack, an eclectic mix of sound that's both off kilter and strangley rigid at the same time, just like the movie is.

It takes its time unravelling its mysteries and shows you the requisite flashbacks gradually, teasing out details about what Thelma is and how much her God-fearing parents know about what she is, even whether their beliefs might have been affected by it.

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