Foreign films in languages other than English are easy to overlook during awards season, especially before Oscar nominations are announced. Allow me, then, to be the first to tell you that Thelma, Norway’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the 90th Academy Awards, is not one to miss.
Of course, you might miss it anyway. At first glance, Thelma is such a quiet, unassuming film, reflecting the nature of its title character to perfection. Thelma (Elli Harboe), a sheltered girl from a very isolated and religious family who is struggling to adjust to life as a college student in Norway, contains multitudes that both the character and the film struggle to suppress. When they break free, the movie transforms from a simple and familiar story about a girl who doesn’t fit in wherever she goes to an intense treatise on loneliness, repression and control.
Thelma’s college experience is not one often portrayed in movies. She lives alone, she studies alone and she sleeps alone. She lacks both the social skills and the desire to make friends — at least at first — and the only people she talks to are her parents (Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Henrik Rafaelsen), who are distant both physically and emotionally despite Thelma’s insistence that she can tell her father anything. At once, you know who this girl is. She’s not a mystery but the girl in the back of class who never speaks but always gets good grades. She’s the girl who sits alone at the library and never once looks up from her textbook. She exists just outside of orbit, always there but never here.
But then a girl sits next to Thelma in the library and smiles at her, and things take a turn for the weird.
This infinitesimally small human interaction triggers such a seismic reaction in Thelma that she begins to have stress-induced seizures. That stress stems from loneliness and the gradual realization that she is falling in love with Anja (Kaya Wilkins), the girl from her math class who smiled at her and has since become her friend — and also from the discovery that when she wants something deeply enough, she can make it happen. (Think the mutant Scarlet Witch, who wanted children with her android husband so badly she magically made herself pregnant because comics.)
Sometimes Thelma’s desires are as simple as Anja expressing her mutual interest in her. Sometimes they are as permanent as making people disappear.
Thelma is not the first movie to explore the deeply ingrained and misogynistic fear society has for women who want things and break free from patriarchal norms to get them. Most of those films end with the women dead or, at the very least, punished for their transgressions (for an example, see pretty much every film noir ever made). It’s very interesting to me that the two recent films who play in this sandbox and do not follow that particularly sneer-worthy trope — this and last year’s The Handmaiden — were not American-made, but Norwegian and South Korean, respectively. I suppose we can thank both the Puritans and the Hays Code for that.
In these two films, it’s the men who dedicate themselves to the women’s continued suppression who are punished and, in a post-Weinstein world, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t incredibly satisfying to see. At the same time, though, Thelma doesn’t make its protagonist some kind of Marvel-esque heroine. Thelma’s journey of self-discovery and her acceptance of her power leads to her liberation, yes, but it also ends on a pretty disturbing note. By definition, her desires warp reality and erase the free will of others. What does that mean for the girl she loves? Does Anja really love her back, or is that love just a projection of Thelma’s intense loneliness?
The film provides no answer, only an ending that seems fairy-tale happy if and only if that tale were told through the point of view of a wicked witch. But here’s the thing: Thelma isn’t wicked. She’s just alone, and she has been virtually her entire life. She chooses to ignore the more troubling aspects of her powers because it means she will no longer be alone.
This is probably a hard viewpoint to grasp if you’ve never been lonely before. I don’t mean the “oh, I wish I had something to do with somebody tonight” kind of lonely, either. I mean the kind where you go days on end without having any sort of meaningful interaction with another human being, the kind where you would rather stay in your dorm room or your apartment or your house and watch a movie you’ve seen a million times instead of going to a friend’s party, the kind where you can’t tell anyone how lonely you are, even the people who love you, because you know they won’t understand.
I understand perfectly why Thelma makes the choices she does because I’ve been that kind of lonely, and at her age, in her position, I doubt I would’ve done anything differently. Loneliness changes everything about you, and makes you very, very weak.
Looking back, I know now I was in a deep depression when I was in college. Of course my college experience, and Thelma’s, is not one that you usually see in movies. Who would want to watch that? It’s too sad, too antithetical to what we’re taught to think of and strive for and be as college students. Surprising no one more than myself, it turns out I do want to see that and for others to see it, too. Genre movies are often a cleverly hidden bridge to real-life issues, and Thelma illuminates one of the darkest parts of my own life in ways I didn’t expect. I imagine it’ll speak to an invisible demographic of lonely women who have had similar experiences, if only this film gets the buzz it deserves.
Thelma is the second movie this year that affected me on a profoundly personal level (Logan was the first, for hugely different reasons), and it’ll be a quiet miracle if it lands an Oscar nomination or even a win this year. But it should.
Sometimes it’s the quiet ones that need recognition the most.