Vancouver International Film Festival runs from September 28 – October 13, 2017. Screening films from more than 70 countries on nine screens, VIFF’s program includes the pick of the world’s top film fests and many undiscovered gems. 

Overview: A young woman experiences a sexual and supernatural awakening. Snowglobe Films; 2017; Not Rated; 116 minutes.

Sad Girl: There’s something wrong with Thelma. She’s six-years-old, standing in the forest, her breath coming in plumes as she stares down the wild doe. Her father stands behind her, his rifle pointed securely at the back of her head and then, a breath, and the deer is gone.

Thelma (Eili Harboe) now stands at the threshold of adulthood, leaving home for the first time to study biology. She’s young, pretty, and studious, blending into the community until she’s nearly invisible. Until Anja (Kaya Wilkins) sits next to her to study. Thelma’s body begins to spasm, she empties her bladder and seizes onto the floor as the student body rush to her aid. It’s scary and embarrassing; not the best way to make new friends in college. Somehow she still does, Anja approaches during her morning swim to introduce herself and see if Thelma’s alright.

This is a sexual awakening of the most powerful kind for Thelma, who has grown up in a Christian household that restricts not only her behaviour but her thoughts. That’s not to say the film is heavy-handed about its religious themes, just that it’s evident through her interactions that Thelma has thus far lived a life of abstinence from worldly pleasures. She shares a very strong bond with her father that manifests in total transparency in their conversations, an unsettling closeness that mistakenly believes in the authority of man as given by God. She is often chided for being prideful and taught to stay true to who she is, even when the transitions in her life muddy her perspective of that reality.

Daddy Issues: This is a complex role and relationship that has been mishandled time and time again in film but director/co-writer Joachim Trier gets it. There’s a specific balance that needs to be reached in order to make a well-meaning authority figure persuasive without domineering, eerie without lechery. In short, it has to be believable that Thelma would respect her father and genuinely, with love, take his word as law. When Anja expresses surprise at the relationship the two have and remarks that as she ages she needs her father less, it seems to start a trickle of doubt in Thelma’s mind.

The two young women fall into a complicated pattern as Thelma comes to terms with her sexuality and the mysterious seizures that take over her body. The doctors and specialists can find nothing wrong—she appears to be suffering from psychogenic seizures which may be an indicator of how her brain is dealing with past trauma. Through personal investigation she’ll learn about a power that she has within her, what she’s capable of, and how far others will go to stop her.

Sexual thoughts, especially homosexual thoughts, are frightening when they’re repeatedly ground into dust as taboo. Thelma experiences complex layers of assault on the mind: her beautiful imagination creates sensual fantasies, and her desires seem to come to life even when she tries to tell herself she doesn’t really want them. At the same time, she’s trying to make friends and create her own boundaries around mind-altering substances and new experiences. But her parents just won’t get off her back and she’s forced to hide who she is for the first time in her life.

Release: Watching Thelma battle her own nature is heartbreaking; at times she is a portrait of womanhood stunted by dogma and shame. I know; I’ve been there. Most of us have, especially those who were brought up believing their job is to wrestle themselves into submission to a higher will. So when Thelma begins to experience powerful manifestations beyond her control, we identify with her helplessness and heavy guilt. She prays madly for God to take away her sinful thoughts and makes tearful confessions on the phone. Watching her brokenly sing along to worship music at church is the most painful and symbolic description of the changes occurring in her heart.

While all of this is happening, quiet supernatural events occur to Thelma and to the people around her. As she begins to confront her past and learn the truth about her family, she realizes that the power lives inside of her but acts against her will. It’s only when Thelma asks the question, “Why can’t I just be who I am?” that she can take control of her power. This is a striking moment of self-realization, a stand against everything she’s been taught and a direct affront to her father and her God. It’s freeing and inspiring, and we join Thelma as she dives deep, deep into herself to right what has been wronged.

Overall: As the titular character, Eili Harboe is an amazing performer. Despite her short resume, her skill for subtlety is impressive, reaching tender depths and letting her face tell an entire story where there was none before. Her chemistry with Kaya Wilkins is genuine; you can almost smell the sparks when the two bounce their performances off each other. The girls are framed perfectly in every shot, as the cinematography is a dream come true. An otherworldly blend of sight and sound combine to seduce the viewer with the supernatural while keeping the story firmly grounded in reality and imagination, making Thelma one of the best films screened at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Grade: A

Featured Image: The Orchard