We’re halfway through Tribeca and “Turn Me On, Goddammit” still holds up as my favorite narrative film premiering at the fest. I wrote about it before in our pre-festival recommendation post, but in the context of the rest of the World Narrative Competition, I need to sound off a bit more. The first word that comes to mind when I think on the Norwegian sex comedy is “refreshing,” a point which I think can’t be over-stated when it comes to coming of age movies of this caliber.
Alongside “Turn Me On” in the competition is “She Monkeys,” a drama that is a sort of understated companion piece from across the border in Sweden. Directors Jannicke Systad Jacobsen ("Turn Me On") and Lisa Aschan ("She Monkeys") each take a look at the standard sexually-focused coming of age narrative and add not only a great degree of honesty and integrity but also an emphasis on the experience of young women that is often severely lacking (at least in American cinema).
There are a few obvious points to make first. The actors in the films are roughly the age of their characters, none of this 20-something or even 30-something casting that seems to pervade every teen movie produced in the US these days (“Prom” is a notable exception, which deserves to be commended). There’s also a commitment to veracity of character in “Turn Me On” and “She Monkeys” and their respective filmmakers present their adolescent protagonists with the perfect collage of innocence, awkwardness and emerging desire. American movie teens tend to be either saturated with an unrealistic sexual sophistication or extraordinarily idealized naïve purity, both of which fall far off the mark.
More importantly, however, is the way that these two films take seriously the goal of creating well-constructed and genuine young women to lead their narratives. I acknowledge that I’m the kind of guy that just can’t turn off the Bechdel test in my head, but it is definitely worth pointing out that both “Turn Me On” and “She Monkeys” bring some much needed humanity and vitality to the generally boy-crazy teenage girls that populate their genre.
The two films and their protagonists, Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), are very different. Alma is somewhat possessed by her burgeoning sexuality, spending far too much of her mother’s money on phone sex (to hilarious result) while Emma is daring but inexperienced, and much more introspective. Yet they each have a deeply complex and developing perspective, like any real teenager. Moreover, the interactions they have with the other female figures in their lives, whether friend or mother or coach, are artfully written articulations of the way these girls live. Shockingly, it seems that the days and nights of teenage girls are not completely dominated by obsessing over boys. Who knew? Someone please send some screeners of these films to Catherine Hardwicke.