Raging hormones aren’t just for teenage boys, but movies about them almost always are. That particular gender imbalance gets a healthy correction with this droll Norwegian comedy, adapted by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen from a novel by Olaug Nilssen.
Calling it a coming-of-age story would invite too many awful puns, as Turn Me On, Dammit! begins with our 15-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm) furiously masturbating on the kitchen floor, much to the confusion of the family dog. Alma’s a big fan of the “Wild Wet Dreams” phone sex line, upon which cheesy fantasies and avuncular advice are dispensed in pretty much equal measure by a friendly fellow named Stig. Too bad Mom’s getting home from work early today …
The opening scene—and that unfortunate title—suggest prurient provocations that the rest of the picture has little interest in pursuing. With uncommon sensitivity, Jacobsen digs into that heady, woozy mix of angst and ardor that characterizes puberty. It’s a time when every little problem seems like the end of the world, which can be hard to handle when you’re also perpetually horny. We see teenage boys go through this in films all the time, but I’m hard-pressed to recall one that’s interested in what it feels like for a girl.
Growing up in rural nowhere Skoddeheimen—a place so dreary that every time Alma passes the city’s lone sign, she flips it the bird—there’s not much to choose from besides the grocery store and the turnip plant. Turn Me On, Dammit! is told from Alma’s point of view, with a wonderfully inarticulate voice-over narration and frequent surreal dips into her fantasies—which often quite hilariously emphasize how little she has yet figured out about sex. But despite the screenplay’s first-person perspective, Jacobsen shoots in an overcast haze, keeping an intriguingly muted tone that emphasizes the universe’s flat, deadpan indifference to our heroine’s overheated personal travails.
Alma’s got a thing for Artur, a classmate played with impeccably studied blankness by Matias Myren. He plays electric guitar for the choir and may even grow up to be a catch one day, but Artur ain’t quite there yet. At a loss for words outside the school dance, he simply unbuttons his pants and pokes her in the leg with his erection. I think we’ve all seen smoother pick-up routines.
But Alma is naturally thrilled, until she makes the mistake of confiding in best friends Ingrid (Beate Støfring) and Sara (Malin Bjørhovde.) With her busty baby-fat and OCD-constant application of lip gloss, Ingrid is the small school’s queen bee, and unfortunately for Alma, she also had her eyes on Artur. When confronted with the rumor, the pubescent lummox immediately denies it (because really, what would you do?) and Ingrid goes ballistic.
Alma’s immediately nicknamed “Dick-Alma,” and mocked mercilessly everywhere from the school bus to bathroom stall graffiti. Even bestie Sara, who passes for a bohemian activist in Skoddeheimen by becoming pen pals with Texas death-row inmates, is powerless against the mass wave of conformity, because ever since way back in the days of the Bible, communities have always banded together when it comes to ostracizing dirty girls. (In many ways, this is a better film about bullying than Bully.)
But no matter how hurtful the behavior of Alma’s classmates, Jacobsen keeps a light touch and a wider view of the world that our heroine gradually grows into. (The best perspective-check arrives when Sara breathlessly recounts the incident with Artur’s penis in a letter to one of her condemned pen pals, eventually conceding that he probably has other things to worry about right now.) With a lesser actress in the lead, it would be easy for Turn Me On, Dammit! to lapse into histrionics, but in Bergsholm’s brave, incandescent performance we can see a dawning awareness that all this drama is really no big deal.
Clocking in at a slender 76 minutes, Turn Me On, Dammit! is full of understated grace notes and oddball characters given moments to unexpectedly rise to the occasion. I loved the nosy neighbor who insists she would never spy on anybody, before producing a spiral notebook chronicling everybody’s comings and goings over the past several weeks. But my favorite is Stig, the phone-sex operator, who is often more than happy to just chat, and strangely enough is the only person around to assure Alma that her urges are perfectly normal. (Such a shame that he bills by the minute.)
Somehow, Jacobsen has managed to make a film about a horny teenage girl that never once feels creepy or leering. There’s a buoyancy to Turn Me On, Dammit! that, combined with the smallness of the story, underlines the very welcome message: While sexual desire can often be confusing as hell, it’s also nothing to be ashamed of.
At the same time, boys really shouldn’t pull out their dicks at school dances.
Turn Me On Dammit!
Director: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
Starring: Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjørhovde and Henriette Steenstrupn