Today’s review includes one of my favorite little-known storytelling devices. So read on to add a new screenwriting weapon to your arsenal!
Premise: A young woman with a history of mysterious behavior falls in love with a classmate during her first year at university to devastating results.
About: Take note of this name – Joachim Trier – because I’m laying down money he’ll soon be announced as the director for one of Marvel’s upcoming movies. My guess is it’ll be Black Widow. While the Norwegian filmmaker has been directing movies for over a decade, Thelma is receiving international acclaim, unexpectedly crossing over into all sorts of markets. Trier seems to be enjoying the film’s success with a sense of humor, embracing the “artsy-fartsiness” of Thelma. And so I present to you, the world’s very first lesbian coming-of-age superhero fairy tale.
Writer: Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier
Details: 116 minutes
Man, this weekend’s box office shows just how difficult it is to survive if you aren’t positioned squarely within one of the big genres. Trying to do something even a little bit different – Den of Thieves and 12 Strong – has resulted in some bloody box office results. It’s also evidence that Hollywood still hasn’t figured out conservative America. 12 Strong was aiming for some of that American Sniper money and got a head shot instead.
Since I wasn’t spending any of my hard-earned money on those options, I decided to take a chance on Thelma, a movie I’d been hearing good things about. And after seeing this clip of the opening scene, I knew I was in. There’s something about those Nordics and their cold creepy perspective on life that I’m ALL FOR. :)
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
“Thelma” follows the titular character as she goes off to college for her first year. This is a big deal as, up until this point, Thelma’s lived a sheltered life, a life with two extremely religious parents, particularly her father, whose intense calm seems to be hiding an inner rage that could emerge at any moment.
Thelma is ill-equipped to handle the social side of university, so she spends all of her time on her own, until she meets the intriguing androgynous beauty that is Anja. Thelma needs education on even the most basic of social functions, such as friending somebody on Facebook, but once her friendship with Anja ramps up, a whole world of fun follows.
But it turns out all of this social contact is too much for Anja, as she starts having seizures not even doctors can explain. Anja tries to help her through it, and as the two grow closer, Anja takes their friendship into the romantic arena, something Thelma is both drawn to and ashamed of.
She repents as much as possible, asking God for forgiveness, but can’t shake these feelings. It’s around this time, through a series of flashbacks, that we begin to see another side of Thelma, a mysterious dangerous side that hints at the impossible. Thelma, her family fears, has the power to hurt others through thought.
When Thelma and Anja’s relationship goes sexual, Thelma’s had enough, and begs her subconscious to eliminate these feelings. Her subconscious obliges… by erasing Anja from existence. When Thelma goes to their favorite coffee shops, their classes, their hangout spots, Anja is gone. What’s happened to her? Has Thelma really erased her best friend? Or might the answer be tied to her controlling father, who hasn’t told Thelma everything about her childhood?
Place a heavily religious character in a situation where they’re tempted by “sin” and you’re usually going to come up with something good. It gets even better if there’s real danger attached to the sin. This is the secret sauce that drives the middle of Thelma. We’ve set up that the father is a powder keg (the “danger”), then introduced the storyline that could ignite him (the lesbian relationship, the “sin”).
This is a great tip for those of you struggling with seconds acts. Second acts are more about characters dealing with internal and interpersonal conflict than they are pushing the plot forward. So if you establish that your main character must adhere to a certain path, then throw a juicier path in front of them, conflict naturally arises as the character is pulled between the two.
That’s the bulk of what Thelma is. She chooses the sinful path then must battle the conflict within herself to resolve the choice.
There are actually lots of great screenwriting nuggets in Thelma. One of the things Vogt does exceptionally well is build anticipation. Anticipation is one of those things that, if you can master it, you can easily keep a reader glued to your script for 10-15 pages at a time.
For example, in an early conversation between Thelma and Anja, Thelma admits that she tells her father evvveerrrrything. Anja thinks this is a little weird but to Thelma it’s normal. She’s always been close to her parents. In addition to this, we establish how religious Thelma’s father is when Thelma wrestles with whether to tell him she drank a beer. Just the thought of having to admit such a sin brings her to tears.
So when Thelma engages in a lesbian romance: WE KNOW THAT THE TALK WITH HER FATHER IS COMING. This results in… ANTICIPATION. This is a guy who we were afraid of over a beer. We can only imagine what he’s going to say once she admits to having a homosexual relationship. So from the moment the romance commences until Thelma makes that phone call, we’re in anticipatory mode, dreading it.
But let’s get to what I promised you in the header. What’s my favorite unknown storytelling device? Are you ready for this? It’s “Out-of-order flashbacks.” I LOOOOOOVE out-of-order flashbacks! They’re my fave. It’s a wonderful way to fuck with the reader. And Thelma kills it in this area.
We open up the movie with that scene I linked to above. The dad takes 6 year old Thelma hunting. When they see a deer, he raises the gun to shoot it, then, with Thelma standing a bit ahead of him so she can’t see what he’s doing, he slowly points the gun at the head of his daughter. We’re thinking to ourselves – EVVVVILLLL DAD!! I hate this guy!!
However, 30 minutes later after we’re ecstatic that Thelma has finally escaped her father and is at college, we engage in another flashback, also when Thelma is a little girl. Except in this flashback, which takes place before that day, the family has a newborn baby boy. Uh-oh. There ain’t no newborn in the present. What happened to him? As the newborn cries away in its crib, becoming more and more irritating, Thelma closes her eyes, thinks real hard, and the baby is… gone. The parents come in, confused. Where’s the baby? It’s only after looking around that we find him under the couch.
All of a sudden, we’re not so sure the dad is the problem here. Maybe Thelma is the problem and the dad was right to consider killing her. This is why playing with out-of-order flashbacks is so fun. You can change the entire lens from which your audience sees your characters in an instant, forcing them to revisit every scene from a new perspective.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit the flashbacks to two. You can continue to use out-of-order flashbacks throughout the script. Maybe, for example, on the third flashback, you switch things around to make it look like Thelma is the good guy again. Then in the fourth, Thelma’s bad again. You can keep the audience guessing all the way til the end.
Even beyond the screenwriting, this is a great movie. The direction is awesome. Lots of wide beautifully composed shots. The acting is incredible. The main girl is amazing. The casting is great. There isn’t a weak link in the film. That dad, man. Whoa. It’s dark. So if you’re not in the mood for that kind of film, don’t watch it. But if you’re up for a great creepy atmospheric movie with shades of It Follows and Let The Right One In, Thelma needs to be your next film.
[ ] What the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the price of admission
[ ] genius
What I learned: This script reminded me that, when done well, a character with strong religious ties being tempted by “sin” is one of the more compelling inner conflict battles a character can go through.
What I learned (turbo-charged): Take note that you have two options as to how to present sin. You can present sin in the context of what’s objectively wrong. And you can present sin in the context of what’s subjectively wrong. The latter plays better onscreen. For example, if a religious person is tempted by drugs, everyone agrees drugs are bad. So the character dealing with that is a bit on the nose. But if a religious person is tempted by homosexuality, as is the case here, many people don’t see that as a sin, and therefore view the hero as a victim of their own religion. Because of this, they connect with and root for the character more, which was the case with Thelma.