Arts & Events

Turn Me On, Dammit! Opens Today at the Shattuck Landmark Theaters

By Gar Smith
Thursday June 14, 2012 - 03:39:00 PM

Writer-filmmaker Jannicke Systad Jacobsen sets the scene of her new film with an opening collection of desolate landscape shots from the outback of rural Norway accompanied by a voice-over from 15-year-old Alma: "Empty road." "Another empty road." "Empty road with tractor." "Stupid sheep." "Stupid hay." It's clear that Alma feels trapped in a small village that she would rather escape. It's also clear that Alma feels trapped in a body that's caught between youthful innocence and the emerging fever of primal lust. 

When we get our first glimpse of Alma (played by winningly winsome newcomer Helene Bergsholm), she's sprawled on her back on the kitchen floor listening to an xxx-racy phone-sex monologue delivered by an earnest "phone-sex actor" named "Stig." One of Alma's hands is on the phone—the other is stuffed inside her panties. 

All it takes is this one opening shot to send the message: This is not your typical teenage sex-angst comedy! This is one for the girls. 

The production notes reinforce the argument for making this film: 

"While there are umpteen cinematic tales of frustrated boys desperate to shed their virginity and pop culture is awash in highly sexualized images of very young girls, the frank depiction of an ordinary 15-year-old-girl's lust is one of our greatest societal taboos. Gazing at a blossoming teenage girl's exterior is a lot less problematic than contemplating her inner life, and the sensual thoughts that might be teeming there. To be depicted in a movie, an underaged girl's natural sexuality must either be sanitized through romance, sublimated (Twilight), perverse (A Very Young Girl), or lampooned (American Pie). It's as if the one thing a young girl's desire cannot be is normal." 

Alma seems composed enough on the outside but her inner life is emotionally volcanic. She's not only prone to phone sex (literally, in the first scene), she's prone to sexual fantasies that range from the romantic to taboo. Alma's teen libida keeps creeping up on her, hijacking her imagination with visions of unspeakables being performed on unmentionables. 

It doesn't help that Alma lives with a single mother who has her own lack-of-companionship issues. And it doesn't help that Alma lives in a town so dull that its name, Soddenheimen, translates as "Fogland." In fact, every time Alma and her cynical pack of gal pals drive pass the road sign announcing the town boundary, they ceremonially salute it with the Rigid Digit of Disgust. 

Alma's secret life begins to derail her real life when her mother (an exasperated Henriette Steenstrup) opens a phone bill that's ballooned with scores of calls to a suspicious "Service Line." Alma, embarrassed to find herself suddenly Stig-matized, confronts her mother with the straightforward truth: "I'm horny!" 

Alma promises to pay for the calls but her mother (who maintains the household from her salary as a turnip-harvester) points out that her daughter hasn't a kroener to her name. Mom arranges a clerk's job with the father of a friend but this fails after Alma is caught purloining a sex mag. Meanwhile, the shopkeeper has become hunk-fodder for Alma's hormone-fed fantasies (with the shop-owner performing an over-the-top Chippendale routine in Alma's mind.) 

Alma does have someone she hankers for in the real world. Her Thor is a skinny classmate named Artur. They keep eying each other but neither has the nerve to declare their feelings—until one afternoon at the Youth Culture Center when Alma sneaks into the backyard to enjoy a solitary beer. Artur joins her and, after some initial shy, mutual starring, he unzips his pants and flashes her. (Or does he? Could this merely be another of Alma's inner fantasies?) 

A flustered and delighted Alma returns to the clubhouse to tell her friends that Artur had just "poked her" with his manhood. Naturally, her friends doubt her story, and challenge Artur to ask if it's true. Naturally, Artur denies everything. And, since Artur is the most popular boy in the school, people have to choose sides. Suddenly, Alma becomes the school outcast, abandoned by her classmates and shunned by her closest friends. Alma's life starts to resemble a Nordic version of Bully

Alma's Goth-eyed gal pal, Sara (Malin Bjorhovde), continues to spend time with Alma—meeting covertly in the bus shelter at the town's boundary to share bottles of beer and sips of teen wisdom. 

"Don't get a boyfriend," Sara warns. "If you do, you'll never leave this town." Sara has dreams of a life beyond Soddenheimen: She wants to move to Texas and work to abolish the death penalty. 

Without friends, Alma forsakes beer bottles for hash cigarettes from the unkempt schoolyard stoner and starts going on long dates with liquor bottles. 

Since Alma's a basically good kid (and since this is a wistful comedy), her life takes a turn for the better when she gets drunk, runs away from home, and hitchhikes to Oslo. Alone in the Big City, Alma looks up a friend's sister and finds shelter with a sympathetic trio of independent young adults. They treat her as an equal and Alma discovers a sense of dignity, independent and freedom that was missing at home. 

When her worried mother finally tracks her down and drives her back to Fogland, a knowing smile is playing on Alma's face. She has made that break with childhood. She may not have a man but she's been emancipated: She has taken control of her life and is going to be making her on rules from now on. 

When Artur shows to plead that he loves her, she dismisses him with the news that "You missed your chance, Artur. We are different, now. I have courage." 

It turns out that Artur also develops an aptitude for courage that enables him to commis a splendid act of public self-humiliation that wins Alma over. 

Turn Me On, Dammit! is charmingly outrageous—a wholly enjoyable romp that fills a void in cinematic narrative. As the Chronicle recently pointed out, a new generation of femme cinema has begun to emerge on the screen with break-trough films like Bridesmaids and Greta Gerwig's Lola Versus. Jacobsen's film (and Bergsholm's well-treaked performance) sets the bar a little higher and a lot further down the road. The film also delivers a special bonus—the ability to fling a Norse oath. If you happen to harbor the hots for some slow-to-ignite Norwegian, just use the original title of Turn Me On, Dammit!Få Meg På, For Faen!