When Thelma (Eili Harboe) was six years old, she was taken out onto the ice by her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) to go hunting with his rifle, and as she stood wrapped up in the countryside winter air, she marvelled at the fish swimming beneath her feet. Then they moved to the forest to track a deer, and when they found one, her father took aim as his daughter stared intently at the animal. So intently that she did not notice him slowly turn the barrel of the weapon towards her and get a grim look in his eyes as he prepared to shoot. Now, she is a new student at this Norwegian university, and preparing to begin studying biology - but her own biology is of more concern.
Writer and director of Thelma Joachim Trier wanted a change of pace from his usual drama movies, so decided he would make a radical alteration of his course and for a horror film. However, he didn't want to make some slasher flick, he wanted something more tailored to his strengths, and this was the result, not an obvious horror at all though it did feature disturbing elements: there were no scenes of characters getting bloodily murdered, though people did die, simply in more imaginative manners. But not in a Nightmare on Elm Street special effects showcase manner either, this was more low key, and there was little likelihood of anyone watching this and bursting into laughter.
Well, you never know, maybe there are those with a twisted sense of humour, but Thelma was an object of pity for most of the running time as she struggled with her religious upbringing and how that isolation was contrasting with this chaos of new people, new knowledge and new emotions. What causes her the most turmoil is her feelings for a fellow student, particularly because this person is another woman, Anja (Kaya Wilkins, a musician in her first feature), and obviously her Christian background has trouble with reconciling with lesbian feelings. In fact, so traumatic does she find this attraction that strange things begin to happen, starting with an apparent epileptic fit.
So she has the embarrassment of that to deal with as well, and the problems of college life where you're supposed to have moved on from your schooldays and become more capable when you're actually feeling overwhelmed by your new responsibilities, educational, social and otherwise, was keenly portrayed by Harboe, who was in pretty much every scene and carried the entire movie with an assurance that was not belied by her character's vulnerability. This was really her show, and Trier had chosen her wisely since the audience would probably find their hearts going out to her in a way that other troubled young people in films could move the viewer who either recognised their issues, or wanted to help but could not because they were watching a fiction, therefore could only stick with this and hope for the best.
But where did the horror movie part enter into it? As those flickering lights indicated, Thelma was the possessor of psychic abilities that she had no real awareness of how to harness, indeed they seem to have come as a shock to her despite flashbacks to her home life as a little girl where they caused terrible trouble and led to her father almost putting a bullet in her as we saw at the opening sequence. Her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is in a wheelchair, and we suspect that was something to do with her daughter's influence as she is not in one in the flashbacks, but as we learn more about Thelma we realise she has the potential to be very dangerous, to the extent that she could kill someone, either accidentally or - uh-oh! - deliberately. That we're not sure even by the end credits whether she has been purposefully turning to murder or whether it's her powers that lash out from her unruly subconscious was a mark of the film's potent ambiguity, though it could just as easily be regarded as a tale of mental illness harnessed by a healthier outlook that transforms the severe drawback into a positive. Nice trick if you can manage it. Music by Ola Fløttum.
[Thunderbird's Blu-ray shows off the film to its best advantage, and has interviews as extras.]