Based on just one of three stories from a novel by the Norwegian writer Olaug Nilssen, Turn Me On, Dammit homes in on the sex life of a teenaged girl named Alma. Actually, it’s not much of a sex life. Mostly she fantasizes, masturbating while talking to a genial phone-sex operator or discreetly rubbing her privates in public as she waits, eyes closed and dreaming dirty, for something — anything! — interesting to happen in Skoddeheimen, the isolated small town she reluctantly calls home.
Does my description make this sound especially voyeuristic or sordid? It’s in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, and some viewers will find the spectacle of an ostensibly 15-year-old girl (according to the production notes, actress Helene Bergsholm was 17 when it was shot, and a brief nude scene involved a body double) stretched across the frame with her hand in her panties jolting, or at least provocative, and director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen probably does mean to provoke. (You’re only looking at the poster for this movie and already its title is giving you attitude.) But it’s easy to defend the film against any charges of prurience. The masturbation scene comes less than two minutes into the film, and it’s intercut with shots of a nonplussed pooch as well as Alma’s mother’s inopportune arrival in the driveway outside. As sexy goes, this is awkward, not erotic.
I was never a teenaged girl, but I do remember being 15, and the tone Jacobsen finds for this quiet, gently comic coming-of-age story feels just about right. The plot is set in motion early on when Artur (Matias Myren), a boy Alma fancies, startles her outside a party by freeing his penis and poking her gently on the thigh. The move could be threatening, but Alma finds it puzzling, arousing, and a little bit funny. She tells her best friends, the wannabe activist Sara (Malin Bjørhovde) and the busybody Ingrid (Beate Støfring), but Ingrid doesn’t believe her. Word of the incident spreads school-wide and Alma is suddenly and somehow the butt of everyone’s joke. Jacobsen sees a world where boys get a hearty clap on the back for sowing their oats and girls get slapped with the scarlet letter if they fail to remain discreet.
Jacobsen and cinematographer Marianne Bakke shoot on 16mm film, with mostly handheld cameras, capturing pale Scandinavian colors in an almost documentary style. I liked the selected locations, especially the desolate bus shelter that functions as an unlikely portal into a larger, better world. The performances, delivered by a cast of non-professional actors (they were plucked from their everyday lives in a sparsely populated region of western Norway, the better to get the regional dialects correct) have a winning naturalism that overcomes some quirky but hoary indie tropes. The film feels of a piece with such forbears as Fucking Åmål (set in a loathed small town in Sweden) and Ghost World (which has its own metaphorically fraught bus stop), and its even-handed treatment of imperfect characters compares quite favorably with mainstream Hollywood stuff like Easy A, which attempted to break down one female stereotype while reinforcing others.
Mostly, Turn Me On, Dammit seems crafted as a riposte to received wisdom that girls should be circumspect about their own sexuality, lest they invite scorn, unwanted attention, or even sexual assault (early in the film, one of the girls whispers that any man could be a rapist) — in other words, that developing female sexuality should be shaped by fear and shame. Artur doesn’t deny his dick move, exactly, but he doesn’t own up to it, either. And why would he? He’s not in the spotlight. Because Alma’s sex fantasies are interwoven throughout the film in a way that makes it hard to spot the seams, at a certain point viewers start to wonder whether poor, hormone-addled Alma hallucinated the instigatory event. The film has a little bit of fun with that idea but never really loses its faith in Alma. In the end, it’s resolute in the notion that virtue is found in truth and friendship, not silent, shrinking chasteness.