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Turn Me On, Dammit!

Year: 2011
Production Co: Motlys
Director: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
Writer: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen/Olaug Nilssen

Not long after this movie I watched the acclaimed American indie Eighth Grade and was particularly struck by the way that film treated the burgeoning sexuality of its protagonist (in hindsight, not at all). There's a single scene I'll no doubt reference when I review it where the heroine is sitting in a car with a boy, trying not to reveal how terrified she is when things turns sexual – mildly threatening, in fact.

Along with her occasional crush on the class hunk it's the only direct reference to teenage sexuality in the story and look, I understand - writer/director Bo Burnham might not have wanted to make a story about emerging sexuality, but I couldn't help but take note of how chaste the whole thing (being an American movie) was.

By contrast, this – European – story about a teenage girl starts with her lying on her kitchen floor masturbating to a paid phone sex line. I'm not suggesting the differences in the films directly reflect the cultural mores of Europe being more liberal about sex than America (no matter what we believe from the content of movies, the US is a far more prudish country than most), but you can't really imagine an American movie being so relaxed and straightforward about the simple fact that teenage girls, as biological beings, get horny.

First of all there's the gender politics inherent to American culture where we as a society don't want 'good' women to be sexual at all – they must adhere to the eternal Madonna/Whore archetype. Secondly, there's the either/or hysteria around social media bullying, slut-shaming and back-and-white, iron-clad assumptions around harassment and consent that leaves no room for the messy complexities of human sexuality, properties we're too frightened as a culture to acknowledge young women feel just like the rest of us.

Alma (Helene Bergsholm) is 15 and lives in a mountainside town in Norway, the kind of place most adults hoping to leave the rat race would love but which her and her peers dream about getting out of.

Bergsholm is a cute enough girl to being with, but Alma is such a gorgeous character. Her explosive libido is so strong it scares even her, prompting her to fantasise about every man she lays eyes on. It's consuming her life and getting in the way of everything, from running up huge phone bills calling phone sex lines (to the extent she's almost friends with the provider) to the slightly trailer-worthy moment where she's working in a convenience store and passes the time by sitting on a roll of coins so she can move back and forth across it and masturbate herself.

It's a trailer moment because she's interrupted from doing so by Artur (Matias Myren), the local boy she has a crush on quite aside from the drive of her hormones, and it's as close to a raunchy rom-com as the film gets.

But despite taking such a refreshing and non-nonsense approach to female sexuality to begin with, the story is also an incisive comment on the modern, Judeo-Christian inclination to punish women for their sexuality. The inciting incident of the story comes when Alma and her two best friends, sisters Sara (Malin Bjørhovde) and Ingrid (Beate Støfring) go to a dance at the local hall.

They gossip, dance, drink bottles of contraband beer and Alma gazes longingly at Artur, and when she goes outside for some air she's thrilled as Artur follows her outside, figuring this might be her moment. Instead, he gets his half-erect penis out of his pants and pokes her with it awkwardly, retreating just as fast.

Though not exactly the encounter she hoped for, Alma is so excited by the sight of her crush's member she rushes back inside to the womens' room to bring herself to orgasm at the thought of it. She can't wait to tell her friends about it but Ingrid in particular is hostile, possibly because of her own feelings for Artur. When Artur himself denies it, all Alma's supposed friends come down against her, nicknaming her 'dick Alma' and ostracising her from the local teenage ecosystem.

Worse still, her mother is on to her because of the crippling phone bills, and when she confronts Alma about it and it erupts into a blazing fight, it's both a heroic and tragic moment for the young girl when she screams at her mother that she's horny all the time and doesn't know what to do about it.

Though it wasn't exactly out of place in the story, her mother then turns into something like the villain, making me lose any respect for her. Instead of sympathising or understanding what her daughter's going through she pathologises Alma's stronger-than-usual urges, making her feel even more of a freak than she already does.

Alma tentatively rekindles her friendship with Sara, who's more understanding and loyal than anyone else in town, but with her mother and everyone else around her against her, Alma has had enough. She hitchhikes to Oslo one night, landing on the doorstep of a family friend at university.

Like the story in the song Small Town Boy, Alma finds her people over the course of just a few days - twentysomething students who work hard but enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of life and don't make Alma feel like there's something wrong with her.

She returns home with a new acceptance of herself, reconciles with her mother and even enjoys vindication as Artur owns up to what he's done in the noblest of circumstances (you'll never imagine how a kid stringing a bedsheet sign up outside a school admitting that he poked someone with his penis could be such an act of chivalry).

Bergsholm and her castmates aren't reaching for Oscars here – it might be simply that at their ages they weren't really accomplished performers at the time but I also found myself wondering if it was just Scandinavian culture, which strikes me as being far more tolerant and (therefore) leads to far less extremes of emotional expression than we're used to in English-speaking cinema.

But their delivery is as clipped and efficient as the 76 minute running time, the foggy lakes, mountain ranges and forests doing the rest to situate it all in an evocative time and place.

I happened to watch Turn Me On, Dammit! and the far hipper Eighth Grade within a few weeks of each other, and found the diverging approaches to teenage sexuality because of the cultures that produced each film fascinating. They'd make a very insightful double bill to provoke thought about gender, sexuality, peer pressure and the cultural environment that shapes them in countries with very different cultural outlooks.

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