With its nods to gothic horror, female sexual awakening and psycho-supernatural spookiness, "Thelma" joins a spate of recent films treading similar terrain, including "Raw," "The Witch" and "The Babadook." The title character, a college student in Norway, begins to experience strange physical seizures when she's confronted with desires considered taboo by her overprotective Christian parents. Whether Thelma is the victim of malign forces beyond her control or the Scandinavian equivalent of horror heroine Carrie, is the central question in this superbly controlled, if derivative, variation on a familiar theme.
Directed by Joachim Trier ("Oslo, August 31st," "Louder Than Bombs") from a script he wrote with Eskil Vogt, "Thelma" is gorgeous to look at, its widescreen vistas taking in serene frozen lakes, a subdued college campus and a possibly haunted house with quiet, observant equanimity. Portrayed in a skillfully restrained performance by Eili Harboe, Thelma is a compelling but oddly impassive character, her isolation punctured by a passing encounter with Anya (Kaya Wilkins), a friendly classmate who introduces Thelma to the joys of wine, cigarettes and sex.
Although the physical and spiritual conflicts roiling beneath “Thelma” lend themselves to lurid expressionism, Trier creates his mood with far more discipline, kitting out his production in neutral tones of beige, light gray and ivory that reflect the characters’ attempts to mute and muffle what’s happening under the surface. (He does a magnificent job of setting up the film’s uneasy tone in a shocking opening scene whose origins finally become clear as Thelma’s backstory is filled in.) Punctuated by magical-realist dream sequences and a protracted session with a neurologist, who performs weird tests with blinking lights, the film builds up a steadily more discomfiting sense of disquiet, culminating in a sequence rife with ambiguity and mixed feelings.
With its debt to Stephen King and Ingmar Bergman never less than obvious, “Thelma” still manages to exert its own subtle power. As a hushed, haunting portrait of a young woman reconciling daughterly duty and her own incipient power, “Thelma” feels like a stylish, timely allegory for the present moment. Some stories bear repeating, even if they’ve been told before.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains smoking, sexuality, brief nudity and disturbing images. In Norwegian with subtitles. 116 minutes.