“Superpowers” have a great deal of baggage associated with it, especially in the realm of cinema. If a character has a some kind of supernatural power it is usually associated with becoming some spandex-clad vigilante hero. While a small handful of these films take the genre to new heights, most get bogged down in the repetitive, archetypal, paint-by-numbers superhero stories that have become a part of popular culture. Thelma parallels the fraught unknown of emerging supernatural powers with the equally daunting first foray away from the safety of a strict religious family into the seemingly boundaryless world of independence.
Synopsis: “A woman begins to fall in love, only to discover that she has fantastic powers.”
Thelma (Eili Harboe) takes to her first year of college with some trepidation. It is clear she is uncomfortable around people and has led a very sheltered life. That isolation will play a large factor in creating a great deal of dramatic tension as her (supposed) powers begin to emerge. Because she is so lonely, it is difficult for the audience to ascertain whether or not the phenomena occurring around her are real or imagined. It is when she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins) that Thelma’s powers truly manifest themselves (accompanied by violent and mysterious seizures) and things truly being to unravel.
Playing against the normal “developing powers” clichés, Trier takes the audience into Thelma’s frayed psyche as she attempts to reconcile both her own emerging sexuality (which is greatly at odds with how she was raised) and the horrifying realization she may either be mentally unstable or some kind of witch/demon/monster(?). There is a naïveté to Harboe’s portrayal of Thelma that allows the ambiguities of the plot to take hold. Is she simply overwhelmed with the freedoms of college life or did the access to all this new stimuli trigger some kind of ancient power within her? Both Harboe and Trier push the tension of that question to its breaking point until the third act when the revelation of Thelma’s true nature is given form.
There’s a fierceness to burgeoning youth that intensifies the chaotic nature of Thelma’s power. Her lack of control in her personal life affects the unwieldy nature of her power. She denies who she truly is due to her father’s desire to control her maturation (both emotionally and in terms of her growing powers) and that internal struggle begets the uncontrolled manifestations that terrorize her waking nightmares. She is at war with herself – like all young people entering adulthood – and it is only when she reconciles her own desires with her parents’ intentions for her that she can fully understand the extent of her power.
It is rare to see a film steeped in the supernatural craft a story in which the “superpowers” become so intertwined with the emotional and psychological journey of its protagonist. Similar to how Stoker subverted the serial killer genre or how RAW subverted the cannibal genre, Thelma’s horrifyingly intimate view of emerging superpowers is something sorely missing from both the horror and “superhero” genre. It upends the very notion of what it means to develop supernatural abilities and tells a more personal “heroic” journey that extends far beyond the traditional “save the world/save the damsel/avenge a loss” banality we’re currently drowning in.
Thelma is playing in select cities now. Hit us up on Twitter with your thoughts on Thelma if you happen to catch it. @Official_FAN