To avoid giving away the delicious chills of Joachim Trier’s dark thriller “Thelma,” I won’t divulge the details of the movie’s most quietly spooky scene. I’ll only call it the “windowpane shot,” and you’ll have to see for yourself what I mean.
But that’s only one of the edge-of-the-seat shocks in this effective thriller, which the Utah Film Critics Association voted the best non-English-language movie of 2017.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is your typical shy college freshman, tackling university life in Oslo after growing up in an icy rural town with her father (Henrik Rafaelsen) and wheelchair-bound mother (Ellen Dorris Petersen). Thelma, we soon learn, is a devout Christian, so when she starts feeling attracted to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), she becomes very confused.
When Thelma gets confused about her sexual identity, or otherwise stressed out, things get weird. She starts having seizures, and unexplained things start happening. Birds fall out of the sky. Things suddenly disappear out of existence, reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone” episode where a little boy wished bad things into the cornfield.
Thelma also learns some unsettling secrets about a grandmother she thought was dead and about what her parents know about what really happened in her troubled childhood.
Harboe captures the deep insecurities and coltish independence of a new college student. If she seems a natural, maybe that’s because she was studying at the same university where the movie was shot. Her scenes with Wilkins are packed with sexual heat, like a raging bonfire on a cold Norwegian night.
Trier, whose last movie was the family drama “Louder Than Bombs,” and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt, build the suspense with subtle strokes, implying more in the early going than stating outright. The mix of supernatural powers and Christian devotion is a bit reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” and Trier’s control of the story’s tension is as strong as anything in Brian De Palma’s repertoire.
I said there was one “windowpane shot” that would give viewers the creeps in “Thelma,” but actually there are two: one loud, the other quiet. It’s the quiet one that will stick in your nightmares, a prime example of how Trier finds as many scares in soft moments as in loud ones.
A college student discovers unfamiliar desires, and unusual powers, in this seductive, scary thriller.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 22.
Rating • Not rated, but probably R for violence and sexual situations.
Running time • 116 minutes; in Norwegian, with subtitles.