2017 New York Film Festival: Tension builds almost to the breaking point in “Thelma,” the latest film from Joachim Trier. A hybrid tale, equal parts coming of age story, lesbian romance, and psychological thriller, this never quite settles on an identity. That’s a shame too, since there are a ton of ideas being played with here. Unfortunately, scant few are answered or even explored in a satisfying manner. At the start, things are compelling and mysterious. If only that had lasted throughout. Individual moments suggest something potentially amazing, but that quickly dissipates into something far more frustrating and way less enjoyable.
“Thelma” wants to engage your mind, but also occasionally make you jump. It has better success with the former than with the latter, though both lack follow through. Had it gone either the more clinical and psychological route or just looked for scares, things might have turned out a little better. As it stands, the split personality makes it hard to get on this movie’s wavelength. Perhaps that’s an intentional feature, but it does create an imperfect final product.
For new college student Thelma (Eili Harboe), school means freedom from her parents, the strictly religious Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen). The coed has long been sheltered from the world, never drinking alcohol or really having friends, let alone a lover. So, when Anja (Kaya Wilkins) catches her eye and reciprocates interest, it’s with great shock that she quickly has both a friend and a potential romantic partner. Unfortunately, these feelings also bring out strange powers within her. Could she just have a medical condition? Or, has her family been hiding something from her? You probably can guess the answer, and once that’s revealed, the flick begins to go off the rails.
One of the best parts of “Thelma” is the lead turn by Eili Harboe, who really sells the fear that must reside within the character. Harboe truly seems to come of age over the nearly two hour running time. Even during the problematic third act, that’s when she shines brightest. Her chemistry with Kaya Wilkins is terrific too. Wilkins is just as interesting a character, though the script does under utilize her. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen are effective in their mysteriousness, though perhaps a little too much on the nose with it all. Other performances here include Vanessa Borgli and Grethe Eltervag, but without question, the MVP is Harboe.
Filmmaker Joachim Trier, who directs and co-writes here with Eskil Vogt, mostly resists the urge to go big. In fact, when he does, that’s when “Thelma” suffers. Jakob Ihre‘s cinematography helps make things look good, while Trier cranks up the tension admirably, but the story is just lacking. All of the initial intrigue goes out the window when characters start acting like they’re actually in a movie. With just a little tinkering, Trier could have had something here. There’s plenty to chew on, that’s for sure. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth at the same time.
There’s a compelling movie within “Thelma,” but it never fully comes to the surface. The phrase “interesting failure” is rarely more apt than with a festival title like this one. NYFF usually has one or two a year, and this could end up the prime example for 2017. Genre fans won’t find enough to grab on to, but more independent minded patrons may see something of interest when it opens in November. For now, just know that it has positives, but also too many negatives to warrant a recommendation.