The Norwegian teen comedy Turn Me On, Dammit! reminds us that whether you live in Norway, the United States, or anywhere else, coming of age is a universally frustrating life passage. The film is an insightful, sweet, funny, and refreshingly frank exploration of that time when churning adolescent hormones make us act in ways and harbor thoughts that are well beyond our emotional capabilities.
The movie stars Helene Bergsholm as Alma, the 15-year-old daughter of a single mother. Two things summarize Alma's character: She has sexual fantasies about nearly everyone she meets, and she can't stand Skoddeheimen, the small Norwegian village where she lives -- every time she passes the sign welcoming people to the town, she flips it off. Alma is crushing on her classmate Artur (Matias Myren, who looks like a Norwegian Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but since she doesn't have a boyfriend she masturbates with considerable frequency -- she's in the middle of the act the first time we see her.
While attending a local dance, she and Artur have an encounter in which he clumsily hits on her. When she tells her friends about what he did, he denies everything. That sends the gossip mill into overdrive, and within days Alma has been thoroughly ostracized while also attaining the unwelcome nickname of "Pikk-Alma."
There's nothing terribly original about the plot of this picture, but the smart screenplay, uniformly winning performances, and warmhearted humanism at its center make it one of the best films of 2012. There are so few movies that tackle material this emotionally complex with such humor and honesty. If you can remember what it was like to be 15, odds are good Artur and Alma each typify both the kind of person that you hoped to be and the one you really were. It's the kind of movie Judd Apatow has made safe for American audiences; this could easily be remade in English and set in small-town America -- not that you should wait for that version.
Turn Me On, Dammit! is a witty, charming movie where the laughs never come at Alma's expense. We aren't encouraged to giggle at her embarrassment or her lusty feelings, but instead we laugh out of empathy when she acts in such wrongheaded ways because of impulses she can't articulate or fully control. She's a horny, admirable hero navigating her sexuality and teen angst as best she can. The movie captures that universal moment when we realize we've outgrown the world we've always known, but we're not yet able to leave it behind.
This is the first narrative feature for director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, who has made quite a few documentaries before. That fits, because this film has the warm, nonjudgmental tone that typifies many quality nonfiction movies. She's interested in recording Alma's world as it is, not in accentuating how the character experiences it. Skoddeheimen doesn't seem like the worst place in the world, but it's presented with such straightforward honesty that we can completely sympathize with how stultifying Alma feels it is.
Turn Me On, Dammit! is a marvelous movie, full of honesty, humanism, and humor. Smart teenagers will think it's a rallying cry, while smart adults will be blown away that they can be brought back to such a formidable time in their lives without an ounce of condescension or false nostalgia. Go see it, dammit!