“Thelma” takes its teasing time revealing what kind of trouble it has in store for its heroine. With her soft yielding gaze and shoulders, Thelma (Eili Harboe) looks like a classic innocent, one of those obedient child-women whose desires bring knowledge and grief. Sometimes these child-women rock their worlds; at other times, they burn them down. The puzzle here is whether Thelma is a tragically doomed heroine (like Carrie) or a romantically challenged one (take your pick). Or is she both?
“Thelma” draws on the familiar female naïf and works with some largely recognizable narrative ideas, but it’s finally too pleasurably unruly to fit into one box. It’s a coming-of-age story rooted in the tradition of the European art film, but it flirts heavily with the horror genre. It’s also a romance, a psychological thriller, a liberation story and a whodunit (and why). Mostly, and most satisfyingly, it plays with the female Gothic, those unnerving tales — churning with desires and dread, and quivering with anxiety and suspicion — in which women are at once the victims and agents of change.
Thelma knows little about her own curious (and curiouser) identity when the movie begins. We know a little more, partly because the movie begins twice, first with a disturbing scene in which a man points a rifle at a girl in a desolate winter tableau. If this girl is our girl the movie isn’t exactly saying. Instead, the story shifts to Oslo, where it settles in for a long while with Thelma, who’s recently started college. She seems a bit down but otherwise appears to be O.K., even if she’s living alone (and out of her suitcase) in one of those spookily anonymous apartment buildings where no one knows your name or cares.
The director Joachim Trier, who wrote the script with Eskil Vogt, stacks the decks against Thelma so heavily that it seems almost unfair, a bit mean, or maybe simply calculating. She isn’t just palpably lonely, she’s burdened with stern, religious parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who are just shy of cliché. They don’t seem especially bad. Yet there’s something disquieting about their insistent attention on her, how they check in with Thelma nightly, drilling her — pleasantly yet somehow unctuously — about studies and meals, as if she needed a firm hand or they were doing a prison head count. She goes along, mostly, but Thelma also gently pushes back.
And then she pushes harder, which is when the movie gets its party seriously started. The mood and tone dramatically shift, and a murder of crows gathers in the foreboding sky, as if ready to join Hitchcock’s “Birds.” Thelma sees a lovely stranger and falls into a mysterious fit, violently shaking. The stranger turns out to be Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and soon she and Thelma are friends. They grow closer, trading smiles and sharing intimacies and widening Thelma’s horizons. She drinks her first beer (and confesses the sin to her disapproving father) and then one day she and Anja passionately kiss, an erotic shock that upends their world and shifts the movie into a leisurely horror-film meltdown.
“Thelma” is somewhat of a departure for Mr. Trier, whose earlier movies include “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st,” deeply felt stories that engage with, but remain unburdened by, the legacy of the European art film. (His last movie, “Louder Than Bombs,” is a faltering family melodrama.) The genre elements in “Thelma” make it feel straighter and rather less personal than some of Mr. Trier’s other work, which is perhaps why on occasion the whole thing feels like an intellectual exercise. He is obviously having fun deploying various horror tropes here — with monstrous maternity and snakes that slither into Freudian territory — but it can seem as if he’s still trying out new ideas and looks.