Though the tradition goes back to the causeless rebellion of James Dean, it's been over the last 25 years or so, give or take an American Pie sequel, that Hollywood has applied its tried and true formula to a countless number of high school-set movies, largely aimed at those suffering through that torturous chapter. The formula, that more is always better, has wrought high drama, noble acts of romance, finely crafted speeches worthy of romance novels and drunken adventures that should serve as the first indication that a future of early morning meetings is in the protagonist's future.
It's often that these movies bury themselves deep in the wide-eyed, aspirational psyche of their audience as models of what their lives should be (never mind that the stars are always in their mid-20's). Generally speaking, though, these power-washed schools, filled with bright color pallets, emotional maturity and acid tongues, are conjured up as beyond exaggerated versions of the teenage experience. In what is a tribute to the universal misery of the high school years, a new film out of Norway, Turn Me On, Goddammit, does a better, and more charming, job of capturing what that awful epoch truly is like.
Based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen, the film stars Helen Bergsholm as Alma, a normal girl 15-year-old girl who dreams of parties, wants to escape her small hometown, hangs out with her friends and calls phone sex hotlines. Yes, Alma has matured quickly, at least in terms of her desires, and frequently fantasizes about Artur (Matias Myren), her neighbor and crush.
When Artur pulls a boneheaded 15-year-old move and pokes her with his penis outside a party, she excitedly tells her two best friends, sisters Sara and Ingrid (played by Malin Bjoerhovde and Beate Stoefring). Unfortunately, dullard Ingrid has a crush on Artur, and when she tells him what Alma revealed and he instantly denies it, Ingrid immediately sides with him.
In an expertly tailored PR campaign the likes of which only could be devised by a cruel high schooler, Alma is systematically shunned and taunted in school, driving her into the bathroom and bus stops, where Sara will talk to her.
The humiliation, marked by whispers, snickers, crude bathroom drawings and chants, are pitch-perfect in their simplicity, and thus all the more devastatingly real. There are no huge pranks or massive cafeterias filled with classmates jeering and pointing fingers in unison -- that isn't reality.
Instead, we get Alma standing in the corner while her fellow students talk and occasionally shoot her subtle yet resoundingly judgmental glances. Her worst humiliations include mean notes passed in class, awkward hallway stares and not getting invited to a party. There are no epic parties or road trips or unlikely, high tech hijinks needed to artificially raise the stakes for the sake of a trailer; instead, as minor as they seem in retrospect, Bergsholm's strong acting and our own memories remind us of how devastating and lonely our own versions of these moments felt.
While Alma suffers the indignity of a crush gone awry, we get a taste of another feeling of high school hopelessness in Sara's struggle. Obviously the rebellious one in the group, she proclaims throughout the film her desire to go to Texas and fight against capital punishment. In one especially strong scene, she and Alma angrily throw fruit from the store Alma works at on the ground, frustrated and yelling about their respective sufferings. One screams about boys, the other about the evils of social democracy. It's a perfect snapshot of the feeling of helplessness in the face of a world of frustrations, on the various levels at which high schoolers operate.
Shot in a remote town in Norway, even the setting gives the sense of isolation. But as isolated and inconsequential as one can feel in such a background, just a hidden blip on a vast map, the scenery lends a stage to the flip side of teenage angst: shots of the winding hill on which the town is situated lend the reassurance that the world is so much bigger than the little, close-minded town in which they live (and whose sign they flash the middle finger at every time they pass by on the school bus).
As Alma struggles throughout the film with the teenage pendulum of hopelessness and greater possibilities, we see a girl working to both make herself more miserable and find something beyond what she's always known. With one eye on the existential misery of teenage years, and another trained on the bigger world that makes the struggles quite obviously quirky and minor, Turn Me On, Goddammit respects its subjects while winking at an audience who watch with years of perspective.