All words: Alan Pyke
A sexual coming-of-age drama set among high school kids is a difficult thing to pull off. You wouldn’t get away with the tricks that Turn Me on, Dammit pulls in the U.S. But subtitles and restrained, thoughtful filmmaking go a long way toward keeping your audience from feeling icky. The film’s story has familiar contours: A small town that stifles our adolescent protagonists. A single mother. An older sister whose big-city college life only underscores the boredom. A trio of friends with different ideas of escape. Hormonal daydreams.
Oh, and the main character is a girl.
Alma (Helene Bergsholm) is 15 and incurably horny. Nothing satiates her – not phone sex, masturbating at the job she took to pay off her phone sex bill, or fantasies about Ingrid (Beate Støfring) the jealous bully turning her cruel aggression to more sapphic ends – and they do not prepare her for what is apparently the first remotely real sexual experience of her life. Her crush Artur (Matias Myren) nonchalantly whips it out at a party and pokes her in the hip with his hard-on. When she rushes inside to tell her friends what happened (after stopping in the bathroom to masturbate), the news spreads in seconds, setting her life in rural, boring, stupid Skoddeheimen on its ear. Now her social standing is unraveled, and her mother’s disapproval of (and embarrassment at) her sexual precocity renders her home life as unbearable as her days at school.
By relying on static shots, jump cuts, the unremitting scandinavian grey and a handful of visual refrains, director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen stays on the right side of the line between sordid and arty. Adolescent sexuality is volatile enough when lived, and putting it on film for arthouse types alters the stakes. But Turn Me On, Dammit never feels exploitative or aimlessly titillating. This is partly because Alma’s fantasies are more sad than contagiously erotic. Her lust for Artur is at least as romantic as it is physical, and her messier fantasies about Ingrid or the shopkeeper are played for embarrassment, not sensuality. This produces a sense of living in her frustration, rather than spying on a young woman’s sexual development, an approach for which I’m thankful because the performances and visual world of the film are far too enjoyable to be peeking through your fingers.
Bergsholm’s work as Alma is mostly about sly grins and depressed voiceover. Malin Bjørhovde brings a guarded punkiness to best friend Sara, who writes dozens of letters to Texas death row pen pals but leaves them addressed and sealed in a desk drawer rather than send them. Alma’s mother is understandably distressed by her daughter’s proclivities, and remains sympathetic despite seeming to think that there’s something wrong with Alma. Besides, it’s a story almost devoid of villains. Teenagers are shitty to each other without much provocation, and the stakes never feel all that high because Alma was already bored to tears, desperate to get out of town even before her classmates nicknamed her “Dick-Alma” and stopped inviting her to parties.
The low stakes are the film’s biggest problem. No one’s life hinges on what’s happening on screen. Alma doesn’t seem at risk of turning into a repressed, damaged flower despite her friends’ and mother’s best efforts to stigmatize her yearning. Even when she decides to hitch to Oslo, you know nothing bad will happen because it’s Not That Kind Of Movie.
Turn Me On, Dammit isn’t a high-stakes drama, but an understated portrait of three different ways of handling female adolescence. The simplicity of the filmmaking lets the portraits of Alma, Ingrid, and Sara stand and breathe; the contrast between the three girls is central. It becomes clear eventually that Alma is in fact the the least self-deceived of the trio. While Ingrid’s use of lip gloss appears at first to be a very adult weaponizing of her sexuality, it’s really just a nervous tic. Sara seems like she’s holding the world at arm’s length and reserving her energy for worldly ideas and causes, but when that act breaks down she’s ill prepared to deal with her own life. It’s Alma who’s actually in touch with herself (obligatory masturbation joke!) enough to stand up to Artur, running off to Oslo to recharge her faith that life will get better.