Each critic has their own process. Some take notes while watching a film and others will rush home to type up their thoughts immediately after a showing. Others still don’t write anything for a while, preferring to mull it all over in their mind a little bit before putting the proverbial pen to paper. I fall into the latter category, but I start thinking about how to frame my review minutes after any given film begins. Sometimes that’s all you need to know what you want to say, or at least the structure with which you’ll want to say it.
I thought Thelma was going to be like that. I thought I knew within the first half hour an outline of what the following words would be. But then things changed in such a way that I’m still, days later, having trouble getting my bearings. Because while little happens in Thelma‘s 116 minute runtime, the themes and questions that it raises and the imagery and style that it uses to raise them are going to be turning themselves over in my mind for a long, long time.
Two thirds of the way through, I knew I would have to see Thelma again. By the time the credits rolled, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to. But whether this was the only time or just the first of many, the screening left my mind racing and my critical gears turning in a way I haven’t felt in a long, long time.
Let’s dig into it…
Years ago, I laid down in a doctor’s office and had a light about a foot and a half above my face strobe on and off for what felt like ever but was probably just like 15 minutes. Fortunately, I’m not epileptic, but I flashed back to it when I saw the epilepsy warning that preceded Thelma‘s start. The use of strobing is an inherently vicious act made against the audience. It is a statement that this piece of art will be taken on its own terms; if you can’t handle it, leave. Three people did so. It was good that they did. This movie strobes a lot, right from its title screen. Like that title screen, which slowly uncovers itself in the flashing light, Thelma is a slow burn that assaults your senses. You look at it closely and it makes your brain hurt.
I didn’t even notice Anja the first time she was onscreen. I’m not sure how I missed her, to be honest. Maybe I was too distracted by what had preceded it. The film begins when she’s six. She goes out into the snowy woods with her father. The camera looks up at her from underneath the ice. On land, they spot a deer. Her father raises his gun and points it at the deer. He points it at her. He does not fire. And you think about that moment during every single interaction that follows. You wonder why, of course, but the why seems less important than the resulting impact it may have had. Thelma doesn’t know, as far as anyone can tell, that this happened. But we know.
Thelma is older now, and we see her in an extreme wide shot of a school campus from high above. There are dozens of people. We don’t know who we’re supposed to be looking at as it slowly zooms in. I thought it might be the old man who suddenly starts to do something other than just walk, so I watched him… but then the camera moved away from him and onto our actual protagonist. She goes into the library and sits down. Anja sits beside her. Birds flock, and one hits the window. She has a seizure.
Seizures are scary things, and the performance of it is… unpleasant. They occur throughout the film, and it never gets easier to watch. A scene where doctors try to coax Thelma into a seizure to diagnose her, very much unlike the tests I underwent, is visceral and intense and a little hard to watch, not just because of the strobing.
When I did notice Anja, I knew immediately that she was going to be Thelma’s lover-of-sorts. It was telegraphed in a way that I thought was almost too much… and of course I was right. The religiosity of the character likewise played into the fact that Thelma and Anja make for an emotionally complicated coupling. Thelma first seems dismissive of piousness, laughing at the prospect that someone might believe the earth is 6000 years old (only to be reprimanded by her father, who, again, pointed a gun at her head years prior). Of course, I agreed with her, since it’s a laughable claim, and I stood very much on her side against her father, whose tone and behavior I found unnerving. My feelings, in retrospect, are complicated.
She then turns it around when a classmate laughs at her belief in any kind of higher power, and she throws his own ignorance back in his face. I wondered, then, was this a movie about faith? Because she threw out some fascinating arguments that did nothing to sway me from my general belief in nothingness (distinct from a lack of belief) but did make me think. As someone who grew up around but not really with religion, its role in film is always interesting to me, and I find it particularly fascinating to see how it plays out in foreign films with other cultures. I know America’s religion. I know the role religion plays in American cinema on the whole. I know nothing about either in Norway, other than a general assumption that Christianity dominates a probably secular-ish country (Wikipedia agrees), and so I approach conversations like this differently than I would normally.
One of the clearest mental connections I made to Thelma was Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, an intensely disturbing story of how forbidden (lesbian) love goes tragically wrong. When I thought that the film was going to be about religion, faith, repression, etc., it seemed that it would be something like that. But it turns out that Thelma has nothing to do with any of that, because Thelma is interested in something far more complex: agency and its consequences.
Religion and repressions factor in there, of course, but the question of free will and grappling with the mistakes of your past and the way that they can and have hurt others is honestly just more interesting than a story about love (we have Blue is the Warmest Color, which I also thought about a few times, for that). In particular, Thelma’s father turns out to be perhaps the most tragic character of all, and there was a moment where I began to think of him as the film’s true main character. It may be about Thelma, but it’s about her dad, and the way it becomes that and what it means for everything that preceded it is fascinating.
And the thing is, that’s not even the big twist. It’s a smaller one, but it’s one that is ultimately more meaningful. It’s the whole reason the big twist even matters. There is a version of Thelma that turns itself on its head and goes from a drama to the genre it technically is and then just sort of goes from there, an origin story of some kind. But instead of going big and turning outward it drills deeper in, getting to the heart of some rough stuff. But it works. All of it works. Somehow, against all odds, because there are so many ways that this thing could fail. It’s so densely packed with themes and ideas and bizarre imagery that I’ve glossed over because I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything (we have a companion piece coming to do that), but it all leads up to the realization that this movie is how it is because it has to be that way.
Things that feel cheap early on are earned in unexpected ways. The development between Thelma and her father, in particular, is brilliantly executed, making for some of the most compelling drama I’ve seen in a long time. And I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. It was weighing on me when the credits rolled and it continues to. To be honest, I think I love this movie… but not in a healthy way. In, like, a disturbed kinda way.