There’s a phone on the floor, and lying next to it is a teenage girl with her hand down her pants, masturbating to the voice of a male phone-sex operator. And thus, Norwegian filmmaker Jannicke Systad Jacobsen introduces moviegoers to the unfamiliar territory of female adolescent sexuality in her raw and poignant comedy, “Turn Me On Dammit!”
Based on the novel by Olaug Nilssen, “Turn Me On, Dammit!” is about Alma (Helene Bergsholm), a fifteen year old girl trapped in a dull rural town (when passing the sign for Skoddeheimen, she and her friend Saralou habitually raise their middle-fingers in disgust). Alma has a colorful imagination and a rich, sexually charged fantasy life. The central figure in her fantasies is her neighbor and schoolmate, Artur (Matias Myren). While at a local youth center party, Artur approaches her, and a brief, almost dream-like sexual encounter ensues. Alma unabashedly tells her friends what happened, but no one believes her. She is soon branded—mean girl style—as an untouchable weirdo; and even her best friend Saralou (Malin Bjørhovde) won’t be seen with her.
Alma is an outcast, but she’s not the rebel outcast we readily identify with, like Thora Birch in “American Beauty.” We sympathize with Alma, but from an interested distance. That distance, however, closes as Alma sinks deeper into alienation, because what makes this film so interesting is its memory-triggering depiction of adolescence—the frustration and powerlessness—and the claustrophobia of life in a rinky-dink town.
“Turn Me On, Dammit!” reacquaints us most intimately with teen life by recalling one of its essential elements—the refuge of fantasy. We see Alma, caught in that developmental purgatory between childhood make-believe and the institution of adulthood (make-believe of a different sort). She has fantasies of sex, redemption, acceptance, even masochistic fantasies as projections of her sense of injustice and helplessness. She just doesn’t have the social finesse needed to anticipate the reactions of her peers, or the guile to be something other than herself. Her transparent attempts to win back favor are awkward and painful; and eventually, her pain turns to rage as she is squeezed to the point of either breaking or blossoming.
By bringing this uncommon story to the screen, Jannicke Systad Jacobsen sheds light on a phenomenon that has otherwise been obscured by ignorance and shame: the horny teenage girl. But while “Turn Me On, Dammit!” kicks up a lot of dust—challenging assumptions and flirting with taboo—Jacobsen keeps it playful, weaving in plenty of wry humor, irony, and funny absurdities.
It’s hard to imagine such a film coming out of Hollywood. It’s blunt “underage” sexuality, and the framing of the conflict regarding Alma’s fervid desires—not in terms of purity or moral virtue, but in terms of health—are pretty far off America’s cultural grid. It’s interesting that the end result—ostracism—is the same.
“Turn Me On, Dammit!” doesn’t provide a cure for the world’s social woes, but it does—intentionally or not—suggest an anti-dote to alienation. It has to do with courage—”guts” would be the better word for it—and creative self-expression. And that’s what we get from Jacobsen—a gutsy film that gets you thinking, but keeps you laughing.