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Turn Me On, Dammit! (New Yorker Films, NR)

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turnmeon 75This seems to be the summer for smart foreign films that pump new life into seemingly moribund American genres.

 

turnmeon 500

This seems to be the summer for smart foreign films that pump new life into seemingly moribund American genres. Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar proved that classroom dramas don’t have to rely on phony uplift and simple solutions to complex problems, and now Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit! finds a fresh take on the coming-of-age drama.

Fifteen-year-old Alma (Helene Bergsholm) is bored with her life in Skoddeheimen (just think of it as Nowheresville, Norway), where the main geographical features are empty roads and the sheep outnumber the people. She’s snappish with her single mother (Henriette Steenstrup), dreams of the big world outside, and spends her free time doing the kinds of things teenagers tend to do when testing the waters of adulthood, like running up the phone bill, obtaining illegal beer, and experimenting with sex.

Before you say that you’ve already seen this film many times over, let me point out that several key differences separate Turn Me On, Dammit! from the usual run of the-year-I-lost-my-virginity films. The most important is that this is adolescence told from a female point of view, by a female director. Another is that there’s nothing obviously special or glamorous about Alma: She’s an absolutely ordinary student in an absolutely ordinary school, the kind of kid who observes life’s pecking order from the vast undifferentiated middle. A third key difference is that Jacobsen doesn’t confine herself to straightforward, naturalistic narrative in Turn Me On, Dammit!; instead, she uses fantasy sequences and black-and-white freeze frames to explore her lead character’s thoughts and feelings.

What Turn Me On, Dammit! most reminds me of is An Education, Lone Scherfig’s 2009 film based on Lynn Barber’s memoir. In both films, the heroines are sexual transgressors, but sex isn’t really what they’re after. Yes, when we first meet Alma she’s masturbating on the kitchen floor while listening to a phone-sex line; yes, she has the hots for one of her classmates (Matias Myren); and yes, she gets in trouble for trying to steal a pornographic magazine. What she really wants, though, is not sex, but a different life. She’s tired of living in a small town where nothing ever happens and everyone knows everyone else’s business, and your social life can be utterly destroyed by the machinations of one jealous person.

It’s no accident that Alma and her best friend Sara (Malin Bjoerhovde) choose the town’s battered bus shelter as their clubhouse, where they drink ill-gotten beer and exchange confidences; it’s a portal to the big world outside in the literal as well as the figurative sense. Sara is also fed up with life in Skoddeheimen, but channels her energies into writing letters to death-row inmates in Texas, and decides she’s in love with a local boy when he promises to get a moped so they can escape the town.

Most of the actors are non-professionals, and they bring a naturalness to the film that is in keeping with its resolutely human scale. Turn Me On, Dammit! is a sweet, low-key film that observes the turmoil of adolescence from the knowing eye of adulthood, respecting the young people’s feelings without endorsing their belief that their troubles make them the center of the universe. Jacobsen brings the story to a satisfying conclusion without claiming to have solved all the problems of the world, or even those of the principal characters, and that alone makes it a breath of fresh air in a summer choked with blockbusters. | Sarah Boslaugh

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