“Turn Me On, Dammit!” is a Norwegian film with an arresting title and a very slight story that is memorable for one thing — it explores the sexual awakening of a teenage girl rather than a boy. That hook has seen it through film festivals in many places and won North American distribution, no small things for a Norwegian film.
Then the film had the great fortune to kick up controversy in certain puritanical right-wing quarters in the U.S., which can always help to promote a small, struggling foreign title. But with all this advance publicity comes the responsibility to deliver the goods and here the film just barely lives up to its festival appearances, honors and scandalous reputation.
I’m just imagining that you’d like to get to the scandal first. Well, the good Christian pastor who raised holy hell about the film probably only reacted to the title and a brief synopsis without bothering actually to see the film. So I must disappoint you about its pornographic aspects. You get racier stuff on cable TV.
But you do wonder if even this churchman would have been nearly as upset if “Turn Me On, Dammit!” dealt with the sexual appetite of a teenage boy. You come to expect this — at least in American movies.
This film, in which award-winning documentarian Jannicke Systad Jacobsen makes her feature debut, looks with gentle humor at the unbridled sexual hunger of 15-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm), who is stuck in a hinterland town she calls “this hole.” So deep is her frustration with the damn place she ritualistically flips off the sign that names the town every time the school bus passes it.
You’d have a to be pretty obtuse not to recognize her desperate need for sexual stimulation via masturbation and phone sex call centers as having as much if not more to do with loneliness than raging hormones. The town is dismal and her fellow teens are portrayed as insular hicks.
All Alma can dream about is getting away to Oslo like the older, university-attending sister of best friend Sara (Malin Bjørhovde). Well, that’s not entirely true. Her actual dreams often focus on a neighboring boy named Artur (Matias Myren), who in her mind is an unlikely combination of Peter Pan and porn star John C. Holmes.
Then one night at a party Artur does make an awkward and overtly sexual pass at her, which Alma foolishly tells her girlfriends about. Artur, of course, denies it and Alma is so ostracized by her classmates even Sara can’t talk to her at school.
Her single mother despairs especially when she sees the phone sex charges. Plus the constant noise of self-gratification coming from her daughter’s bedroom forces the mother to wear earplugs.
Jacobsen, who adapted the story from a Norwegian novel of the same name that dealt with three frustrated women of different ages, plays none of this for high drama. Instead she focuses on small details and moments with a wry humor that keeps things in proportion. All the story’s young people are going through phases of their lives that will pass quickly enough. Perhaps most of them will end up in Oslo, one way or another.
“Turn Me On, Dammit!” is a very slight movie but you can see why it served as welcome relief at international festivals where overly dramatic heavy-duty fare fills the wearying days. Without that context the film feels a tad insubstantial despite fine performances throughout and the conscientious jobs performed by all behind-the-camera personnel.
The oppression of small-town life has seldom been more acutely portrayed and certainly the aggressive sexuality of a teenage girl seldom depicted with such matter-of-fact candor. Bergsholm, who in fact turned 18 while filming, gives a pitch-perfect performance, never overdoing the histrionics and making Alma a nice kid going through a difficult phase of her life.
Like a lot of other girls do — only none ever seem to end up in movies. “Turn Me On, Dammit!” has changed all that and let’s hope for a more evenhanded treatment of teenagers going forward. That may, of course, be too much to hope for.
Opened: June 20, Los Angeles (New Yorker Films)
Production company: Motlys
Cast: Helene Bergsholm Malin Bjørhovde, Henriette Steenstrup, Beate Støfring, Matias Myren, Lars Nordtveit Listau
Director/screenwriter: Jannicke Ststad Jacobsen
Based on the novel by: Olaug Nilssen
Producers: Brede Hovland, Sigve Endresen
Director of photography: Mariane Bakke
Production designer: Sunniva Rostad
Music: Ginge Anvik
Costume designer: Sabina Cavenius
Editor: Zaklina Stojcevska
No rating, 74 minutes