The ninth day of The London Film Festival dealt with sexual repression and the fear of God, and the economic and ethical questions in the literal shrinking of the world’s population.
There wasn’t much warning about either film today: I’ve not seen a Joachim Trier film before, and I’ve not particularly enjoyed an Alexander Payne film since 2002’s About Schmidt, so the apprehension for both screenings was certainlDespitee. Depite regular glimmers of merit in both films – whether it was in the excellent performances or the dedication to simple absurdism – neither films lived up to their potential.
Opening on an icy lake in the Norwegian backcountry, a girl and her father tentatively cross toward the woods to hunt. Encountering a deer, young Thelma turns to watch the peaceful beast as the father takes aim. It’s a beautiful opening, gradually and slowly turning sinister as it puts the fathers true aim into focus. It’s also pretty indicative of Joachim Trier’s Thelma (B): a glacially slow yet sublimely beautiful coming-of-age mystery with supernatural elements. Eili Harboe plays the titular teenager as she moves to Oslo to a new school, alone and friendless, with the fear of a God instilled in her from a young age. It’s not long before things start happening to Thelma: she suffers seizures in class, has a strong ability of persuasion, and a strange authority over birds, but this only happens when she’s presented with a new-found infatuation for Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Soon, these powers manifest themselves during an optically arresting MRI sequence (warnings were dotted around the cinema corridors of strobe lighting, and they weren’t wrong) that’s as threatening as it is uncomfortable.
Thelma isn’t at all subtle with its allegory of burgeoning adulthood and sexual repression – and it becomes less the point when we’re faced with the increasingly supernatural phenomenon – but Trier imbues the story with a satisyfing core relationship. Harboe and Wilkins are uniformly outstanding, both expressing the dazed confusion and euphoria to their blossoming romance and the subsequent estrangement they encounter after Thelma believes her sapphic thoughts to be the epitome of sin. Trier and Eskil Vogt’s screenplay is shrewd in the ways it tackles homosexuality and religion, with Thelma’s father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) pushing his doctrine onto his daughter, but with a hidden, unknowable agenda. This key mystery is adequately hidden from discovery for most of the film, so where the film falls by the wayside is in the final act reveal of her history that’s a tad disappointing in its uncertainty. It’s a little too neatly packed too, while at the same time being aggravatingly lethargic. Thelma is frequently brilliant, and palpable in its terror (it also includes the second sequence of ‘Where’s the Baby?’ after Journeyman) but these flashes of greatness are consumed by a languid pace and a lack of focus into the home stretch.
There are points in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (C+) that made me feel seriously uneasy. These points were where any minuscule, downsized human was visible against the backdrop of a normal-sized environment. This paradoxical scale against what I’m permanently acquainted with made me feel – oddly enough – ridiculously small. Seeing normal-sized Matt Damon stroll down corridors in his mansion, or looking up toward skyscrapers that we were informed to be in Leisureland (a mega-city for the tiny) screwed with my perception of size for nearly the whole run time. It may not have been intentional, but this continual sense of vertigo might’ve done the film a distracting disservice.
Downsizing imagines what would happen if humans were shrunk to a fraction of their size in order to combat overpopulation. It’s a fascinating and – at least in the beginning – breathlessly funny concept that posits a real-life quandary with thoroughly researched ethical arguments: “what would happen if terrorists could shrink themselves?”, “do downsized people still have the right to a full vote?”, “is bringing up a downsized child morally acceptable?”, as well as an unquestionably incredible montage of the process of downsizing. It’s a winningly smart satire that gives the audience time to ponder “given the chance, would I downsize?” , but as soon as the central conflict kicks in, the film abandons this pledged brilliance in favour of a saccharine love story with another one of Payne’s atypical bemoaning white guys. Really, the film followed the wrong person into the new world (ditching Kristen Wiig is unforgivable), and while it was there, placed too much focus on Paul and Dusan (Christoph Waltz) instead of the more fascinating character of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau): a Vietnamese dissident famous for emigrating to Leisureland in a TV box. It’s hard to tell what the tone is, often playing up to its seriousness of the ramifications of the miniature world, then going the route of strange character motives with exaggerated, sometimes questionable, acting. It only gets more bizarre as it moves along, and while Payne and Jim Taylor’s script does stick to its unique weirdness, the inexplicable loss of intelligence for the sake of a finale that revels in bohemian psychobabble becomes tiresome. The concept is superb, but the execution is a huge disappointment.
Day 9 had all the potential to match the magnificence of Day 8’s two films (Journeyman and The Florida Project), but winning ideas felt undercooked and persistently superficial. It made for the most disappointing day so far, purely because of what was promised.