Joachim Trier’s Thelma is a supernatural horror film, but at its heart, the film is the coming-of-age story of a young girl, Thelma, who is from rural Norway and has a fundamentalist religious background. As she starts college in the capital, Oslo, she is highly uncomfortable in her own skin and has a hard time escaping the repressive ways of her religious parents.
Even though the main character Thelma (Eili Harboe) has begun studies in Oslo, her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and mother Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) keep a tight grip on her from a distance. She has a hard time exploring her love for a fellow student, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). “I found the whole idea of the suppression and liberation of a young person in today’s society to be an interesting way to use the genre element to create a more expressionistic visual story surrounding a human psychological situation,” says the director about his fourth feature film. Thelma's main character has telekinetic powers, something that, Trier says, "started as a homage to the more fantastical types of cinema. “Primarily the movies from my childhood: the movies from the 80s based on Stephen King or even further back like Rosemary’s Baby, which was a feminist film which used the supernatural as an allegory to express something that was humanly relatable.”
Trier sees Thelma as a shout out to all young people who feel like outsiders. It is a story about (sexual) longing and finding a place to belong. “It is very much about the longing to be accepted by others but also learning to be accepted by yourself. I hope that people see that the film is ultimately about the trust that is needed for a human being to be who they need to be.” Thelma’s problem is existential. She has a hard time separating herself from her parents’ religious view of the world as she struggles to find her place in it.
“I am very skeptical when religion is being misused. That is, any religion that is being used to suppress people. That has often been the case with women or with people who have a different sense of who they are – like queer people.”
The message in the film is a simple one, even if it is told as a psychological horror story inspired by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. “We wanted to make an inspiring story about accepting and learning to accept yourself as who you need to be.” The script was written with his longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt, a director in his own right. Yet, the conflict between sexuality and repression is between two young women, Thelma and Anja. “I don’t see a big difference, to be honest with you,” says Trier about the fact that two middle-aged men wrote a story about a young female. “Often in these films, women are portrayed as the victims who are chased by some monster – a trophy – but I thought it was a great thing for young women in particular to see a story of empowerment.”