The term slow-burn is no stranger to Fantastic Fest’s audiences. A lot of films push the envelope in terms of using interesting ways to put a spell on the audience, while also working in some dynamic character development. Thelma is one of those films. It takes its time to make its point, but like a lot of these slow-burn films from the fest, it utilizes that approach to create a totally standalone emotive experience and one that will leave you breathless.
Thelma follows a young girl by the same name, who is heads off to University. Like most young folks headed to the high frontiers of parental free living, she is reaching a point of change and exploration. With a heavy religious background, her inner angst and first view of true freedom begins to wake things within her long left dormant. So, along with discovering her first love, she also begins to awake something powerful and possibly sinister within herself.
The film is absolutely beautiful in its scope and wears its heart on its sleeve for cinematic experience. A number of wide shots are used emphasizing use of negative space to mirror Thelma’s mostly icy world. The actresses in this are so good that the sometimes-glacial pacing is acceptably 100% overlooked. Their onscreen chemistry works and is alluring and provocative. The film could have entirely been about these two girls eating a sandwich and drinking coffee for an entire two-hours and I would have still been onboard and engaged. Director, Joachim Trier obviously brings his unique blend of character focus from his previous work on films like Oslo and Louder Than Bombs. His eye and ear for blending his actors in with a swirling narrative is at the forefront of all his work and is extended to Thelma here. I’m hoping to see him work on more genre stuff in the future as he appears to have a natural comfort level in doing so.
The film plays out like an antihero Marvel comic character over the course of its runtime. If you could picture a completely grounded origin story for Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix, this would be it. And in a world where FX’s Legion and the upcoming New Mutants are charting new paths in comic book movies/shows realm, this would easily have fit right in. Thelma’s transformative nature and awakening powers lend themselves to a dark past that unfurls over the course of the film.
Thelma left me thinking. Its careful use of its runtime to establish its characters and their relationship sets up the dominoes in the second half to fall with precise operatic choreography. Its narrative holds its cards close to its chest as revelation after revelation is unfurled, while it is all while simultaneously wrapping its tendrils of dread around you. Thelma is smart, haunting and utterly fucking awesome.