Pick of the week: A horny teen-girl manifesto

Pick of the week: With its sex-obsessed young heroine, "Turn Me On, Dammit!" goes where few movies have gone

Topics: Our Picks: Movies, Our Picks, Sex, Feminism, Movies, Editor's Picks,

Pick of the week: A horny teen-girl manifestoMatias Myren and Helene Bergsholm in "Turn Me On, Dammit!"

When we first meet Alma (Helene Bergsholm), the blond, almost angelic-looking teenage protagonist of the Norwegian comedy “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” she’s sprawled out on the kitchen floor of her mom’s house with her hand down her pants, eagerly following the instructions of some phone-sex dude named Stig. You’ll have to trust me that this is the setup for a memorably awkward sight gag and not a creepazoid NC-17 fantasy — or, to put it another way, if Alma definitely has a dirty mind, the movie doesn’t.

A dry, whimsical and finally sweet film that tries to turn the conventional teenage sex comedy inside out (at least in gender terms), this debut feature from writer-director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen is one of those rare movies that gets better and more complicated the more you think about it. Watching the film is a thoroughly charming experience on its own terms, and then you’re left puzzling over all kinds of thorny questions that fail to yield clear answers. Is female sexual desire fundamentally different from male desire? If so, why is that true? Is a teenage girl’s sexuality, as one female friend put it, mainly a question of “playing around with her newfound power over the desires of others, rather than an expression of her own desire”?

Indeed, teenage female sexual desire remains something close to a cultural taboo, and let’s stipulate two things right now: The more I talk about this the more I run the risk of seeming like a perv, and I’m definitely not going to work out the whys and wherefores of that in a movie review. Perhaps teenage girls and young women are such central objects of sexual fascination in our culture — in the form of both lustful fantasy and puritanical repression — that it’s difficult to conceptualize them as being subjects too. I kicked this around with a few colleagues, and we could only come up with a few examples of movies involving teen female horniness, all of them problematic in one way or another: Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Laura Dern in “Smooth Talk,” Katie Jarvis (opposite Michael Fassbender) in the disturbing but undeniably hot British indie “Fish Tank.” “Dirty Dancing”? Sort of. “The Virgin Suicides”? Sort of. There’s a lot of sublimated, metaphorical, kinda-sorta, which you just don’t encounter in the endless numbers of movies about the endless horniness of teen boys.



At any rate, Jacobsen (a woman, in case you can’t parse Scandinavian names) isn’t interested in sublimated kinda-sorta. She drives cheerfully straight at the taboo, spinning an absurdist, imaginative coming-of-age yarn that would seem far more conventional if its hero were a teenage boy. Whether you see “Turn Me On, Dammit!” as a realistic tale of teen lust and confusion in the post-feminist welfare state, or as something more like satirical farce, is entirely up to you. Is it believable that a cute teenage girl would have to resort to phone sex to get off? Have there ever been phone-sex lines aimed at women in the first place? If you’re going to get hung up on questions like that, this movie is not for you. The point is that Alma is stuck in the nowheresville fjord-side town of Skoddeheimen — I think that’s Norwegian for “Podunk” — and she’s desperately horny, and the boundaries between her sexual fantasies and the rest of the world aren’t what they might be.

Alma has sporadic phone-sex-interruptus sessions with Stig (inflating her mother’s phone bill to alarming dimensions) and elaborate nightly fantasies about a sleepy-eyed local dreamboat named Artur (Matias Myren), who seems to like her and all, but won’t make a move. Almost everyone she encounters, from her dour boss at the village convenience store to her best friend’s bitchy sister, can become the temporary star of Alma’s (often hilarious) erotic imagination. Her partner in loathing for life in Skoddeheimen — they flip off the village sign every time they pass it on the bus — is her classmate Sara (Malin Bjørhovde), who writes meandering letters to Texas death-row inmates that we see as low-tech animations. (There is indeed an element of “Napoleon Dynamite”-goes-to-rural-Scandinavia quirkiness to this picture, but I never minded it.)

Things don’t improve any for Alma after she finally has an intimate moment with Artur, amid the ruined outdoor furniture behind the local youth center. Her would-be beau either does or does not display his throbbing naked manhood for her, which raises both the question of what actually happened (Alma says he did, but Artur denies it) but also of what Alma really wants, whether from him, from boys in general and from life. Since Alma is a known deviant and phone-sex addict, even her so-called friends don’t believe her, and she isn’t entirely sure herself. That’s when “Turn Me On, Dammit!,” which is largely light in tone, swings back toward social realism. Like girls shamed for their real or imaginary sexual conduct all over the world, Alma becomes a social pariah and the subject of vicious bathroom graffiti. She runs away to the perceived bohemian freedom of the big city, forcing a somewhat predictable crisis in which Artur, Sara, Alma’s eternally horrified mom (a difficult role, nicely handled by Henriette Steenstrup) and Alma herself are all forced to reexamine their actions.

When I first saw “Turn Me On, Dammit!” at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival — when the last word of the title was “Goddammit,” with no exclamation mark — it provoked a certain amount of debate, with some viewers suggesting that it might be too conventionally naughty to carry a feminist message. In fact, pervo-expectations will be thwarted, in that “Turn Me On” is all talk and no action. There’s no sex or nudity at all, unless you count Artur’s egregiously fake male member. It might merit an R rating (if it were rated), but just barely. This is a wry, affectionate small-town movie that ends up much closer to old-fashioned teen romance than you expect at first. But as I suggested earlier, along the way it sneaks up on a genuine feminist issue. Boys Alma’s age are expected to be sex-obsessed, but a girl who yearns for action is likely to find her lust and confusion simultaneously stigmatized, commodified and exploited. If Alma’s story scores an extremely modest victory against repression and hypocrisy, it’s one that female libertines everywhere (and those who honor and support them) can embrace.

“Turn Me On, Dammit!” opens this week in New York and April 13 in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>