Fifteen-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm) lives in a very small, very dull Norwegian town. Her best friend, Saralou (Malin Bjorhovde), dreams of moving to Texas to fight the death penalty; she writes letters to death-row inmates and chain smokes. Saralou’s sister, Ingrid (Beate Stofring), is a catty townie with pretensions of experience and a lipgloss habit.
Alma, being 15, is preoccupied with sex. No surprise there. More surprising are the astronomical phone-sex bills she racks up. She masturbates loudly and constantly, to the great distress of her mother, who works on a turnip farm. And she obsesses over Artur (Matias Myren), her hunky schoolmate.
One night, outside a party, Artur makes eyes at Alma, proceeding to press his bared, erect penis against her thigh. Alma is thrilled, and as soon as she’s done taking care of herself in the bathroom, tells her friends. Unfortunately, Ingrid also has a crush on Artur, and loudly doubts her story. She confronts Artur, who neither confirms nor denies, and Alma instantly becomes “Dick Alma,” the school’s most untouchable outcast. Naturally, she’s still hung up on Artur.
Turn Me On, Dammit! is that rare thing: an honest coming-of-age story from the female perspective. It’s also a right-on depiction of female sexuality, demonstrating that just as much teen-girl angst is due to sexual frustration as to romantic disappointment.
It’s an unusual premise by the logic of film and TV, largely because so little of either is made by women. And Turn Me On takes a warmer look at sexual development than, say, a Catherine Breillat or Lena Dunham film. The message is simple: Alma is normal.
While an important message doesn’t necessarily make for a great film, Turn Me On, the first narrative feature from documentary maker Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, is mostly successful. Visually, it’s lovely and precise, and save for a few non-sequiturs and patched-over plot holes, dead honest.
Honest and stylish are difficult to pull off at once, but Jacobsen manages it through sparse storytelling, scrubbed down to relevant details. Scenes progress matter-of-factly, without dramatic pause: Alma is humiliated at the party; next scene, she’s sick in bed; then she’s in class, unfolding the mean-spirited note that has just been tossed onto her desk. Fantasy and reality run together as seamlessly as teens’ thoughts drift from class to the thing they’d most prefer to be doing.
As a result, the sex is not sensationalized, nor is anything eroticized beyond what’s appropriate to the narrative: Alma is not a nymphet, but a frustrated kid. Her sex drive advances like the Blob over the people around her, engulfing Ingrid and Ingrid’s dad, whose shop she works in to pay off her phone sex debts. That’s what happens when your desires are new, and urgent, and unmet – you don’t discriminate.
At times, Turn Me On can feel emotionally lean. I found myself nodding throughout, but without the urge to cry for Alma’s plight. The film’s lack of sentimentality is a strength overall, but an occasional weakness.
For the most part, the characters look and behave as their real-life correlates would.
Their speech can feel a little declarative and Jacobsen is stringent with character details; Artur remains something of a cipher, which diminishes the tension between him and Alma. Saralou and Ingrid feel a touch underdeveloped, as well, although Bergsholm as Alma is as charming and awkward and ballsy as you’d expect and lovely in a translucent, Nordic way.
Jacobsen has crafted an interesting film that stands on its own merits, without trumpeting its premise or politics. Likewise, when it fails, it fails on its own terms. Much like teenhood itself, Turn Me On feels like a portrait whose details are a little awkward. But its likeness is strong, and its subject has character.
Turn Me on, Dammit!
- Directed and written by Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
- Starring Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjorhovde and Matias Myren
- Classification: 14A
Special to The Globe and Mail