[Editor’s note: This review was originally published during Indiewire’s coverage of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. “Turn me on, dammit!” comes out in limited release this Friday, March 30.]
Despite the confrontational title, Norwegian coming-of-age movie “Turn me on, dammit!” doesn’t take an abrasive approach. The gentle, emotionally honest narrative feature debut of writer-director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen follows horny teen Alma (Helene Bergsholm, in a believably understated breakout performance) as she explores her sexual curiosity, falls into an embarrassing situation with her peers and copes with becoming a pariah, all while dreaming of a better life. Adapted from the novel by Olau Nilssen, “Turn me on” plays like a familiar entry in the teen sex comedy genre without the sex.
Growing up in a remote community far from the bustling urbanity of Oslo, Alma’s desire to get off represents only one piece of the wider angst afflicting everyone her age in the area. (School bus riders ritualistically flick off the town sign as it passes by them each morning.) Still, Alma does think about sex a lot, appearing in the first scene sprawled out on her kitchen floor with one hand down her pants and a phone sex operator whispering in her ear. When her mother suddenly comes home, Alma’s frantic scrambling recalls the opening of “American Pie,” when a jittery Jason Biggs gets busted by his folks while jacking off to late night porn.
The difference here, aside from the gender, is that Alma’s close call doesn’t really play for laughs. Instead, the scene emphasizes her frustration over being forced to repress her needs. It feels candid instead of crude.
That also applies to a later plot point, which finds Alma having an awkward encounter with young stud Artur (Matias Myren) at a party, when he randomly rubs his member against her leg. Instantly spreading word to her peers, Alma finds herself the subject of disdain when Artur denies the act. Now nicknamed “Dick Alma,” she quickly becomes ostracized by the only world available to her. On her own, Alma’s imagination runs wild, and she begins to have a series of amusing fantasies in which she envisions sexual advances from those around her.
Which begs the question: Did Artur actually run his rod into Alma’s leg, or was it simply another one of her lewd daydreams? The uncertainty matters more than a firm answer because “Turn me on” focuses on the lingering perceptions of young people still figuring out how to communicate. When Alma’s mother eventually learns about her daughter’s phone sex habits, Alma takes a rebellious route, openly moaning from her bedroom and snatching a Playboy from her day job at the drug store. Needless to say, that doesn’t improve her lifestyle conditions.
Meanwhile, Alma’s close friend begins to obsessively send letters to American prisoners on death row, a reminder that Alma and her peers harbor a genuine desire to escape the constraints of a boring existence. Her burgeoning sexuality is only one expression of that burning need.
Jacobsen conveys this situation with a delicate touch and whimsical stylistic flourishes: Occasional black-and-white images sum up the events, while a playful indie rock score fleshes out the atmosphere. However, at 75 minutes, the filmmaker cuts to black just when the story begins to take an interesting new direction. With so much promise leading up to that point, the dispiriting climax is a major turn-off.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? If allowed to keep its racy title, “Turn me on, dammit!” could do magical numbers on VOD. A successful U.S. theatrical release is more unlikely.
criticWIRE grade: B+