Alma has a strong imagination — so strong that there are times during Turn Me On, Dammit!, the narrative feature debut from Norwegian director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, where that imagination threatens to consume the film.
But then fantasy and reality are given equal footing here, so that it's initially difficult to tell, in many scenes, where one begins and the other ends. The fact that Alma allows her rich interior life to spill over into reality often has mortifying results: She's only 15, and her daydreams revolve exclusively around the carnal.
Alma (Helene Bergsholm) and her friends live in the tiny Norwegian town of Skoddeheimen, a place despised by its younger residents with that special brand of contempt teenagers reserve for anything they deem dull and boring — as if the town itself was consciously intent on making their adolescence dreary. They spend their free time idly smoking and looking sullen at a lonely bus stop; riding back into town, they habitually flip the bird at the sign announcing they're crossing into Skoddeheimen.
In that environment, Alma has to manufacture her own excitement, and for her that generally comes in the form of nonstop sexual fantasies. She pleasures herself, in fact, with the hand-fatiguing frequency that is normally associated in popular culture with teenage boys.
The blurred line between Alma's interior and exterior lives is at the core of the event that sets the plot in motion: While she takes a breath of fresh air outside a party, Artur (Matias Myren) — object of many of her reveries — comes out to join her, and promptly engages in some highly inappropriate behavior.
But when Alma recounts what happened to her friends, they don't believe her; Artur denies it, and in a town with little else to talk about, she quickly becomes a pariah, the target of obscene nicknames leveled even by the neighbor kids endlessly trampolining in a yard on her route home. But the way the scene is framed, Jacobsen wants us to wonder, too: Is Alma's imagination getting the better of her?
There are shades of another Scandinavian sexual coming-of-age story here — Swedish director Lukas Moodyson's 1998 debut, Show Me Love. Both films look at the pain of finding and establishing a sexual identity in gossip-prone small towns, but Jacobsen replaces the more genuine pathos of Moodyson's film with deadpan Nordic humor.
Jacobsen shares writing credit with Olaug Nilssen, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, and they've surrounded Alma with an entertaining cast of colorful, slightly surreal characters. The sisters who are her best friends form an archetypal high-school yin and yang: Ingrid (Beate Stofring), the shallow blonde, is forever applying pink lip gloss and flirting with men in the grocery parking lot to get them to buy the girls beer; Sara (Malin Bjorhovde), of the dark hair and darker eyeliner, is a budding political activist and feminist, sending letters to death-row inmates in Texas and casually commenting on how all men are potential rapists. Ingrid, who also has a thing for Artur, is a catty mean girl, largely responsible for Alma's outcast status, while Sara, ever sympathetic to the unjustly persecuted, is the only person who will still be her friend.
There's nothing particularly revelatory here; high school remains, as ever, a cruel and lonely place to have a sexual awakening. Jacobsen's dry humor, along with a tendency to use still images with Alma's interior monologue to illustrate some of her fantasies, also tend to distance the viewer rather than forge an emotional bond with the film's pained protagonist.
Yet there's an undeniable sweetness here, evident in the vulnerability that peeks through Alma's disaffected facade, and in the unconventional grand romantic gesture that turns the film's climax into a playfully dirty spin on Say Anything's boombox scene. Jacobsen's frank, funny but nonexploitative approach to teen libido has the feel of honest memoir, a look back at those years that recognizes, with the benefit of distance, that there's plenty of humor to be found in even the most arduous of growing pains.