Girls Just Want to Have Fornoyelse
Published on May 9th, 2012 | by David Fitzgerald0
Running time: 76 minutes. In Norwegian with English subtitles.
In this day and age, it can be strange to think of the United States as a Puritanical nation (at least, in comparison to most of the rest of the world). Sure, the Christian right still holds enormous sway over conservative politics, and the MPAA still decides, with increasing arbitrariness, who can and can’t see what on the big screen, but they are both generally perceived to be fighting a losing battle. However, there remains a less definable, kind of latent moralism to the way American filmmakers historically have depicted female sexuality at its most formative stages―a deep-rooted, but wholly misguided desire to shield even our fictional daughters from the dangers of the big, bad world outside until they are well past the age when such information might actually be useful to them. While decade after decade has produced endless reels of dreck―from “Porky’s” to “American Pie” to “Superbad”―glorifying that oh-so-masculine goal of losing one’s virginity, young women have been offered virtually no similar alternatives chronicling their own funny, strange journeys into adulthood. Instead, they get saccharine, Nicholas Sparks romances draped in the mentality of “Someday My Prince Will Come” self-denial and chaste longing, or afterschool cautionary tales like Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen”―essentially the cinematic equivalents of the two schools of thought on sex education in this country, incidentally―and regardless of which side you are on, it’s clear that the subject of budding female sexuality is anything but a laughing matter in the land of the free. In denying that half of our population a viable, relatable alternative to what is now practically its own subgenre―the teen male conquest comedy―we have denied them a certain amount of agency, as well, depicting them as prizes rather than competitors, and hoping they’ll act accordingly.
It is with that in mind that Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s “Turn Me On, Dammit!” has been roaring into U.S. theaters with all the post-feminist moxie of a Scandinavian Lena Dunham. Indeed, if you crossed Dunham’s brilliant HBO series “Girls” with something like the dreamy, magical realism of Catherine Breillat’s “A Real Young Girl,” you might come up with a close approximation of this slight but undeniably authentic comedy.
At the center of “Turn Me On, Dammit!” is the fifteen-year-old Alma (the fearless and luminous Helene Bergsholm), a resident of the tiny, and fairly remote town of Skoddeheimen, Norway. Skoddeheimen is one of those echo-chamber hamlets where everyone not only knows everyone else, but also knows everyone else’s business, more or less as it happens, making the fear of ostracism both more real and more prevalent than it would be almost anywhere else, and as a proudly horny teenager who regularly avails herself of clandestine phone sex chats and pilfered pornography, Alma quickly learns the dangers of other people discovering her newfound urges, be they her mother (Henriette Steenstrup, none too happy about the phone bill her daughter’s racked up), her best friend Sara (Malin Bjorhovde), or most destructively, Sara’s mean girl sister Ingrid (Beate Stofring).
Sara and Ingrid, for their parts, act as perfect foils to one another, while both feeling confused and threatened by their friend’s brazen new attitudes toward her sexuality. Sara, an introvert who writes countless letters to a prison inmate in Texas but never sends them, wants these feelings but is afraid to have them, opting to keep them locked away until she can escape her hated hometown. Ingrid, on the other hand, a literal choir girl who fancies the same boy as Alma, has these feelings but is afraid to want them, preferring to slut-shame her friend and maintain her alpha status via gossip rather than compete with her in the real world and risk having to confront her own blossoming desires. Both sisters cling to different variations on the erotic/romantic fantasy that young women have been fed for generations, while Alma is, if somewhat awkwardly, still boldly striking out for new territory―seeking to merge that fantasy with a more satisfying version of reality.
Many of the film’s funniest moments come in the form of Alma’s own fantasies, which blend seamlessly with her day-to-day activities so that the viewer slips in and out of them without warning, just as distracted, hormone-crazed teenagers tend to do. Ginge Anvik’s spare score, and sound editor Ingar Asdahl’s clever blending of diegetic and non-diegetic sound further enhance Alma’s lonely, lust-addled perspective. One moment she’ll be walking home from the bus stop, the next her crush du jour is leading her into the woods to deflower her while an overwrought pop song subtly swells in the background, and then without warning, the song cuts off mid-verse, and she finds it was all a daydream as she continues trudging down the road in chilly silence. Alma indiscriminately fantasizes about everyone from Artur, the dismally dull boy whom she and Ingrid fight over, to her boss, to Ingrid herself with little more than a stiff breeze needed for provocation, and unlike her friends, she both has and wants these feelings. It is her hapless, hilarious, and profoundly universal experience of learning what to do with them that makes her such a rich and groundbreaking heroine.
Whether or not we’ll see an Alma in American cinema anytime soon is hard to say, though I’d take the odds that we will before too long. Feminism’s third wave has largely succeeded in inundating our popular culture and now feels less like a wave than just the natural push and pull of the tides. For every “Gossip Girl” and Megan Fox vehicle that gets washed out to sea, a “Sex and the City” or “Bridesmaids” or “Girls” washes back in, and while all of the Righteous Babes chronicled in those artistic milestones have at least a decade on Alma, one can only hope that a few more lunar cycles will bring us a teenaged American equivalent (you could make an argument for Claire Sloma’s performance as Maggie in last year’s criminally underexposed “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” but even that character comes nowhere near the sloppy realism Bergsholm brings to Alma). God knows our young women could use more honesty in their role models―and yes, I am calling Alma a role model―even if it makes their parents uncomfortable, because there is nothing more comforting during the tumultuous years of pubescent sexual discovery, as Alma learns on a runaway trip to visit a college-aged friend in Oslo near the film’s heartwarming conclusion, than legitimate proof that other people have felt the same things you are feeling, and come out the other side all right.