Can we call Joachim Trier's Thelma a horror movie? The story of a young woman whose mysterious seizures coincide with unsettling, possibly supernatural goings on around her, it certainly resembles one in its broad strokes. And with Trier's brooding, precise stylization, it does cast a disturbing spell. But horror turns on helplessness, on pulling viewer and protagonist into a world that, on some basic level, they want no part of. Thelma starts with that idea, but moves away from the monstrous, toward compassion and understanding. Like an emo Carrie, it probes the profound underlying sadness beneath tales of possession. It makes vivid the protagonist's loneliness and despair.
A spark flares when Thelma (Eili Harboe) -- a shy, wide-eyed freshman in college in Oslo -- meets Anja (played by the Norwegian-American musician Kaya Wilkins), a beautiful fellow coed. One night Thelma seems to call Anja to her bedside through the sheer power of her mind. The director's approach to narrative remains understated despite intimations of the paranormal. He doesn't dwell on unexplained physical or natural phenomena. Thelma suffers seizures that call ominous flocks of crows to her, but don't expect an aviary apocalypse a la Hitchcock. Instead, the birds become a visual motif that's echoed in other elements of the film: impossibly high camera angles, black-clad ballet dancers -- as if the idea of God's judgment were pulsating all around.
Uncertainty doesn't lend itself to contemporary horror's jump scares; instead, Trier offers an existential kind of terror, one that inspires us to use our imaginations. So yes, Thelma is a horror movie -- a lovely, transfixing one -- but don't look to it for cheap scares. The terror here cuts far deeper.