"Turn Me On, Dammit!" Tackles the Precocious Sexuality of Teenage Girls Without Exploiting Them

"Turn Me On, Dammit!" Tackles the Precocious Sexuality of Teenage Girls Without Exploiting Them
From left, Helene Bergsholm, Malin Bjørhvde, and Beate Støfring in "Turn Me On, Dammit!"
(© 2012 - New Yorker Films)

On paper, the out-of-control libido of a pretty blonde 15-year-old girl, who noisily masturbates at every opportunity as she racks up a phone sex bill and incorporates a buxom friend, the supermarket boss, and the school dreamboat into her fantasies, is the stuff of a sordid – not to say illegal – porn film. However, creeps drawn to theaters (and away from their computers) to see “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” opening today, will feel short-changed.

Though it’s a sex comedy of sorts and includes two images of teen breasts (belonging to a body double) and a recurring shot of the dreamboat’s erect penis (a prosthetic), “Turn Me On” hasn’t got an exploitative bone in its body. If anything, it’s a primer for parents grappling with the notion that their virgin daughters, and not just their sons, are tormented by the onset of lust and its vicious sidekick angst.

The slight but funny first fiction film written and directed by the Norwegian documentarist Jannicke Systad Jacobsen is a deft socio-sexual indie gem, probably unique in its empathetic treatment of the shock and confusion experienced by teenaged girls in the throes of rampant sensuality. I can’t think of an equivalent English-language film, and though there’s been an evolutionary shift since the age of such hideous nymphetic fare as “Candy” (1968) and “Lola” (aka “Twinky,” 1970), it’s worth noting that “American Reunion” – the latest slice of the horny boy-centric “American Pie” franchise – opens a week today.

“Turn Me On,” extrapolated from a novel by Olaug Nilssen that she adapted for the stage, is the better bet. Jacobsen’s coup is the recognition that female sexual awakening and first romantic yearnings coincide with the stirrings of ambition and the need for girls (and not just boys) to escape environments that, whether "boring" scenic Norway or the Upper East Side (think Kenneth’s Lonergan’s “Margaret”), seem like traps. 

Alma (Helene Bergsholm) lives with her single mother (comedienne Henriette Steenstrup) – Dad is never mentioned – in a fjord town, fictional Skoddenheimer, so drearily provincial that she and her friends, the twins Sara (Malin Bjørhvde) and Ingrid (Beate Støfring), flip the bird at its street sign every time they pass it.  Bitterly narrated in voiceover by Alma, the film’s opening montage of empty roads, sheep, and “stupid kids” trampolining is an ironic hommage to that of “Twin Peaks.” Alma’s constraining world may resemble the Pacific Northwest, but her physical and psychological horizons are light years from those of David Lynch’s bitchy nubiles or “Twilight”’s eerily passive Bella Swan. 

The handheld camerawork and naturalistic acting by the mostly amateur cast takes us into Alma’s, Sara’s, and Ingrid’s drab lives with affecting intimacy. Though she doesn’t patronize or undervalue Alma’s need for orgasms, Jacobsen makes it clear her heroine’s prime need is a tender romance with schoolmate Artur (Matias Myren). Unfortunately, Artur proves himself to be a jerk when, outside alone with her at a youth-club party, he pokes his naked erection at her thigh. Or did she imagine it? Because Jacobsen, who may have studied Luis Buñuel, seamlessly overlaps reality and fantasy, the movie is often opaque; only at the end do we learn whether Artur did or didn’t do it.

Unfortunately, Alma blabs about the epochal moment at the party, causing the spiteful Ingrid, in love with Artur herself, to spearhead (as it were) Alma’s ostracism at school. Soon even the young trampoliners are chorusing “Dick-Alma! Dick-Alma!” when they see her.

Only Sara, her twin’s polar opposite, stays loyal. A would-be anti-capital punishment activist, who fantasizes about traveling to Texas to support the Death Row inmates she writes to, Sara – a deadpan Janeane Garafolo to Alma’s wry Sarah Polley seemalike – voices the need of these kids to muster the bravery to flee. She has avoided falling in love, she says, because she fears an unfulfilled life as a housewife. Developments in the story imply she may never escape, but Alma, dangerously hitching a ride one night as things go from bad to worse with Artur, dips her toe beyond the fjord. What she finds hints at what she will become and where she might become it. From volcanic desire, “Turn Me On” metaphorically suggests, grows hope.