Thelma (Star Cinema, 2012 release directed by Paul Soriano)
Tessa Maria Guazon
Thelma’s saving grace is the performance of its supporting cast and the panoramic scenes of Ilocos province. Other than these, the film comes off as inordinately polished, robbed of the pathos and struggles required of this genre and is a tame, dull and tedious chronicle of an aspiring athlete’s fight against the odds.
Maja Salvador is Thelma, a farm lass gifted with speed. She initially regards the gift as respite but later realized it could well save her family. A young girl suddenly thrust into adulthood, Thelma struggles with numerous hardships. Salvador’s awkward Iloko tone, her less-than graceful sprinting form, the supposed transformation from wayward adolescent to responsible adult are failures in portrayals of conflict and depth. Crucial to Thelma’s character is the onset of adulthood and how it descended on her by way of guilt and filial responsibility. Salvador missed this subtle leap, overtaken perhaps by the random miles the character had to run to keep track.
Born to a poor, farming family, Thelma’s days are divided between house chores, school, play and petty adventures with her sister Hannah (Eliza Pineda). They barely get by, thriving on farm produce and weaving. Thelma’s refuge is running on paddy fields and paved streets. Her stubborn streak often gets her in trouble. She is not as brilliant in school as her sister but proves indispensable at home. She recognizes her gift but is reluctant to train because she feels discomfort from people watching her run. She plods through her days until an accident forces her to grow up. The sisters take the short route to school requiring them to cross a main highway of speeding vehicles. As was the custom, Thelma takes the lead and sprints over to the other side. On one such day, Thelma sulked and refused to go to school leaving Hannah to cross the road alone. Hit by a car, Hannah ends up with a broken leg. The brilliant child suddenly has to stop schooling and is now confined to a wheelchair. Driven by guilt, Thelma stumbles upon her athletic calling and is thrust into the adult world of responsibilities and filial obligations.
The shift in the story demands that this reckoning (of Thelma’s acceptance of destiny) be conveyed fulsomely across the screen; lest we miss the subtlety of the entire narrative. Alas, such delicacy rests on how skilfully a performer enacts inner turmoil. In Thelma’s case, this is the combined weight of liability and remorse. Such portrayal requires sensitive embodiment so we can yet again feel and be reminded of the torment of choice. This embodiment is vital to the story especially as it chronicles the travails of an athlete whose success lies in disciplining the body and spirit. Thelma in the cusp of adulthood is supposed to live this conflict but it seems Hannah the sister, grows up more eloquently. In scenes where the sisters confront their lives of poverty and seeming hopelessness, Hannah shines with effortless depth while Thelma self-consciously grapples with emotions.
Thelma’s talent turns out to be a legacy from her mother, a track and field champion in her youth. She chose marriage however, and stopped training because of childbirth. Encouraged by her mother, Thelma begins to train and eventually lands a scholarship in Manila. Her training days are not without strife. She sends home her stipend and survives on the little that’s left. Thelma commits to having her sister operated on so she is able to walk. She confronts distractions and challenges. All seemed petty within the overall gravity of the movie’s claim to inspire. The biggest blow is learning her mother suffers from cancer. Torn between training and the yearning to care for her ill mother, Thelma has to make a choice. As expected, she triumphs in the end supported by a family who encourages her to stay in the city and continue her athletic training.
Thelma sags from the burden of its self-conscious depiction of inspiration and hope. It seeks to portray the triumph of will but fails to coherently explore the depth of the human struggle to conquer fear and faltering commitment. The opening and closing sequences are replete with clichés, marking this unneeded reticence. If at all, the film refuses to let go of this tight grip resulting to scenes appearing stilted, lacking flow no matter how beautifully shot. While it aims to be buoyant and light, it is instead captive to gravity. Succumbing to formulaic shots of landscape, it fails to poetically yoke character and place. Thelma likens herself to the windmills of Bangui whose harnessed energy fuels households, but the dialogue barely corresponds to a remarkable image or scene. Halfway through, the viewer makes an easy prediction that Thelma after all succeeds and wins first place in any of the numerous races she competes in.
Thelma fails to depict the full flowering of triumph that films of its kind aspire to. Thelma’s hope is her own, held hostage by the screen. It does not spill over nor kindles a fiery equal in the hearts of viewers.