Mordant Scandinavian slice-of-life movies aren’t much rarer than teenage angst flicks, but Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s brief and gossamer, yet exact and flavourful Turn Me On, Dammit! is a superior example of both. Rather than great, gruelling transformative experiences, Jacobsen, adapting Olaug Nilssen’s novel, aims rather for minimalist depictions of covert epiphanies and quicksilver changes of temperament in her portrait of adolescent agonistes. Set in the small Norwegian hamlet of Skoddeheimen, a trio of 15-year-old-girls are going through the early, chafing experiences of real sexuality and frustration in their settings. Alma (Helene Bergsholm), single daughter of a single mother (Henriette Steenstrup), is going through the most dreamily discomforting phase of adolescence, with distinctive modern boldness: she’s introduced frantically masturbating on the floor whilst on the hotline to a phone sex service she calls so incessantly she racks up a colossal bill. Alma is forced to go to work in a store so boring the paint can almost be studied in its peeling process to pay the bill, and her mother is increasingly disquieted by her daughter’s loudly nascent sexuality, but these soon prove the least of her problems. At a party, a boy she has a crush on, Artur (Matias Myren), guitarist with a local youth choir, seems to furtively jab Alma with his raging hard-on. Except that with Alma’s sexual fantasies having already warped our on-screen reality several times, it’s hard to know whether this really happens or if it’s just another manifestation of her new and overheated libido. Alma certainly thinks it’s real, and blurts out what happened to her friends, with Artur angrily denying the act and Alma’s would-be hottie pal Ingrid (Beate Støfring) suddenly turns against her friend because she has a crush on Artur.
Alma’s social standing instantly tumbles: she is nicknamed “Dick-Alma” by all and sundry, including even the two tots seen perpetually bouncing on a trampoline (the film’s funniest moment). Alma tries to weather the storm, split between impulses to both shy away from trouble, and also to court it and live up to her antisocial impulses. Gripped by the latter impulse, she buys a joint from local stoner Kjartan (Lars Nordtveit Listau) and tries to make a show of her new bad habits, but fails to gain any compensatory cool points. Kjartan meanwhile has a crush on Ingrid’s sister Sara (Malin Bjørhovde), who can’t really live up to her own edgy image as a death-penalty protesting, vaguely gothy rebel; she can’t bring herself to mail the letters she writes incessantly to prisoners on the Texas Death Row, initially spurns Kjartan’s pot-imbibing habits, and can only defy her sister’s pouting wrath to the extent of meeting Alma after school. Jacobsen sets out less to shake up the thematic or stylistic territory of the film than to deliver its modest insights with concision: she captures the ebbs and flows of Alma’s psychic and social self-perceptions with a casual-seeming clarity. Even Alma’s fantasies, from imagining Ingrid dominating her to her dull employer Sebjørn (Jon Bleiklie Devik), who is actually Ingrid and Sara’s father, breaking out into ecstatically flirtatious dance-moves, are absurdist yet acute passports into the protean fever-dreams of that age. The key moment of Artur’s dick-poke (said glimpsed member safely false) is a deft little axiom from Jacobsen, turning it from islet of carnal clownishness to a moment of strange, incantatory promise, as if Jacobsen senses its links to phallic imagery of dawning human cultures and implicit totemic magic; Alma is, for much of what follows, far more obedient to that totemic power than Artur, who, whilst eventually confessing that yes, he did do said deed, still can’t admit it publicly and save Alma from disgrace.
Apart from its mildly transgressive – actually not transgressive at all, but we’ll pretend it’s so, as there are people on both sides of our modern cultural wars who seem to need such merely honest works to be that – portrait of a teenage girl as randy and frustrated rather than a boy, Turn Me On, Dammit! is otherwise a smoothly orchestrated, diverting, and not at all surprising film, but to a certain extent its lack of startling twists attests to its basic authenticity. Peripheral figures, like Alma and mother’s perpetually attentive neighbour who denies any suggestion she spies on people and yet keeps a meticulous record of others’ comings and goings, skirt good-natured cliché. But Jacobsen, even in engaging the material with a frankness that ranges from the deadpan to the faintly beatific, completely avoids the crassness and moralism often inherent in such material. Succinctness is her chief achievement, and not just in how the film runs about the same length as an old B-movie, but in how the crisp editing style and interpolated still shots keep the narrative from falling into lulls whilst capturing the periphrastic stages of Alma’s journey not to a place but a more mature state of mind, and connection with others in a fashion that is no longer merely cliquish or masturbatory. The dreamy, distracted, reality-disconnected vibe coexists easily with a clear and naturalistic feel for locale and acting. Some off-hand details, like the teenagers’ ritual of flipping the bird at the town sign, to the nervous, gnawing smoking style of the girls, the angst-exorcising confabs in bus stops, and the sight of Sara and Kjartan lying limply toasted on ratty furniture in a back yard, are torn from the race memory of the last fifty years of teenage life in the boondocks. Climactic shifts are intelligently muted: when Alma is irritated enough to hitch-hike to Oslo to seek out Ingrid and Sara’s older sister, Maria (Julia Bache-Wiig), a university student who represents hope of life after Skoddeheimen, she’s briefly adopted by Maria’s funky flatmates who greet her formative problems with empathy and humour (the song one improvises to celebrate Dick-Alma is purposefully silly and still more entertaining than the last four or five songs to win Oscars). Soon enough, Artur finally proves his love for Alma with a declaration that’s both uncouth and very sweet, paving the path for the next great moment of crisis and education in teenage life, one which mother’s final line nervily fends off for at least another night.