The moment you leave home for college is the moment your parents say, “Have fun, but don’t lose who you are in the process.” It’s a worthwhile sentiment that we often take for granted as an implicit notion that we are who we will remain despite embarking on a journey full of unknown responsibilities, freedoms, and dangers. How can we truly know our identity when we’ve yet to cultivate one on our own? How much of that “who you are” is actually “who we want you to be” anyway? They’ve given us our socio-economic status, religion, culture, and moral code. They’ve steered us back onto the “correct” path when we’ve went astray. And as we enter into the light of infinite opportunity, they often work to retain control.
Why wouldn’t they? For eighteen years you were their “property,” their responsibility in good times and bad in a way that made your mistakes theirs by proxy. They ostensibly controlled whether you lived or died from conception to birth to food to shelter to school and beyond. So while Joachim Trier does startle us with Thelma‘s bleak opening scene of a father struggling to push his love aside to kill his seemingly innocent daughter without warning, we can almost implicitly understand the power behind the action. There’s something in his eyes that says he isn’t the crazy one. It’s the face of a man who must put down the dog he’s had for ten years because it bit the neighbor. Love, however, has a way of trumping duty.
But while our forays into alcohol, drugs, and sex lead to hangovers and embarrassing memories, Thelma’s (Eili Harboe) move further towards unexplainable permanence. We aren’t aware of the details at first as Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt do a wonderful job slowly peeling back the layers of her “awakening” so that context can force us to reevaluate everything we’ve witnessed previously. Only when she suffers her first seizure do we begin to comprehend the supernatural pull she wields because it can’t be coincidence that birds start flying into the window at the same exact moment. The cause is most assuredly stress and yet it’s easy to see schoolwork isn’t the culprit. The way she looks at classmates with a yearning to be seen and included proves as much.
So of course she grows frustrated by her parents’ constant calling. She becomes self-conscious being seen as “the girl who had the seizure” whenever someone approaches her to say hello. And yet she remains staunchly beholden to those values ingrained in her from youth. Even though Thelma’s quick to question people of faith thinking the Earth was created six thousand years ago, she lets her own religion guide her choices when it concerns vices. She refuses offers of liquor, studiously attends classes with clarity of focus, and rejects the feelings a chance encounter with Anja (Kaya Wilkins) conjures. A choice is presented: risk alienation by sticking to a way of thinking she’s never had a chance to challenge or embrace new experiences and see where life takes her.
It wouldn’t be an authentic display of discovery if she didn’t chose the latter. Unfortunately, though, that path only exacerbates her condition to the point of no restraint. Her inevitable crisis of faith isn’t in Christianity—depicted with an almost inherently comical level of devotion that makes sense when you learn 75% of Norway’s population is Evangelical Lutheran Christians—but her identity instead. It’s as though Thelma’s body is revolting against her mind, re-educating her now that she’s out from under the microscope of domineering parents. How she feels around Anja becomes a literal earth-shattering experience and it scares her to think what that means as it concerns who she was raised to become. Trier shows us how love will always prove more volatile than hate ever could.
Only through this metamorphosis of being—her learning about her condition, her family, and her past—can she hope to come into her own and it can’t help but scare her. Thelma begins to fear what she’s capable of doing (and what she’s already done), running home to the safety of those parents (Henrik Rafaelsen‘s Trond and Ellen Dorrit Petersen‘s Unni) we have started to see with clearer eyes. Memories arrive with dark truths and darker possibilities. Love becomes strong enough to destroy itself with but a thought as dreams become lucid and control relinquished by all parties involved. And as most do when faced with insurmountable change, a desire to go back to how things were consumes them. We fear exactly that which should set us free.
The whole is a fantastic metaphor for this evolution of self. Superpowers manifest to force Thelma into the role of outsider, her abilities augmented by the release of inhibitions both in consumption and sexuality. She’s told that her love for Anja isn’t real, that it’s a mirage diverting her from a path of normalcy. She’s told that only God can save her from herself, that changing into what she truly is goes against the laws of nature. It’s a harrowing experience that leaves her confused as far as where to turn. Her parents want to lend protection (whether to her or from her is yet to be decided) as her subconscious fights the urge to suppress what never should have been forsaken. Ignoring her powers rendered them dangerous.
Thelma‘s “mutant” origin tale can be stripped of its fantasy to become the empowerment of a closeted lesbian and further still to the depiction of an adult exiting the shadow of his/her upbringing. Nature and nurture collide to crown a winner and allow for the acceptance of one’s own happiness to be relevant when compared to that of those surrounding you. Harboe portrays this internal and external struggle beautifully, the choice she must make inextricably tied to unavoidable consequences. But once she does and the collateral damage is exposed, the potential for greatness remains. Sometimes we must acknowledge we aren’t the cancer in our own lives; that we’re allowed to escape the constraints thrust upon us out of ignorance and panic. We can break free from our chrysalises.
courtesy of TIFF