In this refreshing take on small-town teenage girls, high schoolers on the cusp of 16 are not the precocious temptresses that Hollywood and European/indie art house film frequently leer at, objectify, and punish. Debut director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen cheerfully shows them as hormonal, curious, bitchy, daydreamy, insecure, and frustrated about sex, sometimes all at the same time.
Alma (Helene Bergsholm) narrates a tour of her fictional small town in rural western Norway, with an emphasis on the boredom there, and her life, with an emphasis on her orgasmic fantasies. It’s sometimes coyly hard to tell where the boundaries are, for her and the audience. She awkwardly navigates her crush on Artur (Matias Myren), the guitarist for the church choir; she’s caught between the sibling rivalry of her girlfriends, Saralou (Malin Bjorhovde), the almost Goth/almost political activist, and her pretty mean girl sister. While her single mother works long shifts at the turnip plant, Alma fills time afterschool hanging out at the town’s bus stop and at home masturbating to a telephone sex operator’s “Wild Wet Dreams,” racking up a whopping phone bill. Her mother’s punishments add to her problems.
Alma has a vivid imagination of romance and sex that frequently rockets out of control (in slo-mo to the indie pop tunes of Norway’s Kings of Convenience). Even so she’s perplexed when Artur makes a surprisingly explicit advance at a party, where there was plenty of underage drinking to cloud everyone’s judgment, and she hesitantly reveals what he did to her friends. From a teasing note on the day after to nasty bathroom graffiti by the third day, she’s shunned with a mocking nickname she can’t shake off. While the time setting is vague, social media isn’t needed to make the teasing go viral through the school, and seemingly the entire town. The accusation against her keenly shows how a teenager’s life can be made miserable when blundering naiveté is exacerbated by confused feelings of attraction and jealousy, especially among girls, to quickly escalate into bullying. As Saralou writes to a Texas death row inmate pen pal for perspective: “This must sound trivial, but life is never easy.”
Alma tries out different, creative strategies to survive as a pariah. She plays up her new slouching bad girl image, ramps up her vengeful fantasies, rebels against her mother, runs away to the big city, and keeps confronting Artur to tell the truth.
Based on a novel not available in English (the author has a cameo as the voice of the sisters’ mother), the director’s light, amusing touch prevails over the potentially Catherine Breillat-dark subject matter (helped by quirky small-town characters). American teenagers willing to venture out of the multiplex to read (a bit smutty) subtitles will find they have a lot in common with Alma and her frenemies in the Norwegian boondocks.