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Thelma
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by Jay Seaver

"A strong, modern take on the "Carrie" story."
4 stars

I love the themes that director Joachim Trier eventually gets around to really poking at, the idea of institutions and even family holding determined women back by any means necessary. There are times when it gets well out of the filmmaker's hands, like he's got this idea but doesn't really know how to pull it together as a story and ultimately decides to just go with what feels right (or horrible, depending on the scene), but mostly this movie seems to be on the right track.

After a brief prelude, the audience meets present-day Thelma (Eili Harboe), a bright girl who grew up in a small town but has come to the city for college. She and her parents (Henrik Rafaelsen & Ellen Dorrit Petersen) appear to be close, but maybe not quite so close as they first appear: Thelma isn't exactly actively rebelling against her religious upbringing, but she fibs about which courses she's taking and sees a pretty big difference between believing in God and believing the world is 6000 years old. Given this, it's almost a given that she won't tell her parents how close she is getting with her classmate Anja (Okay Kaya), but not telling them when she starts having seizures - and the doctors can't find any signs of epilepsy or similar neurological disorders - is something else.

It would be one kind of movie if the seizures stayed in her head, but from the way that all those birds were crashing into the window the first time, that's not going to be the case, and when that happens, a story can either go in the Carrie or X-Men directions, and both are kind of minefields. The second almost inevitably makes the character's abilities the focus of the story, making it a question of practical application rather than the internal struggles that the storyteller wants to tell on a larger-than-life scale. Enlarging it to that scale, though, tends to break the metaphor, making the girl with great potential inherently dangerous, not just something that makes people uncomfortable or nervous. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt don't really have a solution for that, story-wise, and to be fair, they don't need one, though their film would likely be a bit more compelling if there were a little more evidence offered that Thelma could change the world in a positive way.

It winds up working on balance in large part because the title character is appealing throughout, with a low-key interest in broadening her understanding of the world in competition with being the product of a loving but constrained environment, and Eili Harboe proves really excellent at showing all that entails. Trier and Vogt make sure that the audience can see the roots of the moments where Thelma reacts in ways that may disappoint the audience, but Harboe makes certain that they seem hard on Thelma, getting the audience into her head even when she's pushed into unfamiliar and unusual places. She's got a nice rapport with musician-turned-actress Okay Kaya, and an enjoyably complicated one with Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Thelma's parents. Rafaelsen and Petersen are just nervous enough, most of the time, and do solid work in the flashback scenes.

Trier is good at deploying supernatural scares but also making sure they affect the world in ways the audience can grasp. He squeezes the absolute maximum out of things that might have a conventional explanation or, at least, which don't require a lot of obvious special effects, and it's not small thing to find that spot where you can naturally jump from things that fit into the real world to the impossible. What few flashy visual effects are deployed are good ones, too, well-designed and placed so the audience doesn't wonder why there haven't been more or necessarily expect them to dominate the rest of the film.

He is, perhaps, a mite too fond of unanswered questions, but at least keeps the film to a scale where leaving them like that doesn't exactly hurt. And, indeed, if what you want when you finish this sort of movie is a sense of unease even when there is triumph, you'll be well-served, maybe better than those of us who like to see our imaginary scares align with real ones. Whichever you want, you'll get it in sleek, grounded, well-acted fashion.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31624&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/07/17 16:33:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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  10-Nov-2017

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