Lisa Aschan’s She Monkeys (Apflickorna in the original Swedish), which played at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past April and won awards in both Berlin and Tribeca, is without doubt one of the most frustrating films I have seen all year. It’s not that it’s bad. If it were bad, it wouldn’t be any different from way too many movies I have seen since January. What it is is mediocre, which is all the more infuriating because it repeatedly shows tremendous potential, only to waste it all by refusing to follow through on its promises. After the first fifteen minutes, I wanted to love this movie; by the end, I was disappointed I couldn’t like it more.
As the film opens, 15-year-old Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) has just joined an equestrian vaulting team. There she meets Cassandra (Linda Molin), who decides that they are to be friends. “I always get people to do what I want,” Cassandra explains. Not the most auspicious way to start a friendship, if you ask me. For a while, though, Emma seems content with letting Cassandra have the upper hand in their relationship. When they run into each other at the pool, Cassandra leads Emma to the top of a 30-foot diving platform and then, without warning, pushes her into the water. She repeatedly tests Emma’s patience and boundaries in similar ways, as if she were trying to see how far she can go until Emma lashes out. The sexual undertones of their relationship are echoed in a second plotline involving Emma’s 8-year-old sister, Sara (Isabella Lindquist), trying to deal with body image issues, as well as with her feelings for a certain Sebastian.
She Monkeys, with its story of sexual awakening and ambiguous relationships, is reminiscent of both Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love and Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies—two movies that, coincidentally, also happen to be among my favorite of the past decades. Pawlikowski’s and Sciamma’s films, however, are emotional bombs always on the verge of explosion, while Aschan’s is anything but. Perhaps that’s its main problem. Aschan, who co-wrote the screenplay, always remains at a safe distance, an outside observer recording Emma and Cassandra’s actions without truly ever engaging with what she is filming, as if she were afraid to come too close to her heroines and their feelings.
Not that this decision is totally unjustified. Emma is a quiet, reserved teenager who isn’t quick to discuss what she feels (or anything at all, really), and Aschan’s style is presumably intended to mirror that. The result, though, is that She Monkeys often feels like a series of disjointed scenes chosen more or less at random, for we cannot make sense of them in any meaningful way. Our lack of direct or indirect access to Emma’s thoughts and feelings condemns her to remain undecipherable throughout, in turn making the relationship at the heart of the movie appear much less complex than it should be. There’s no sense of causality, and we’re left with what seems like a disappointingly binary proposition: up until a certain point Emma is fine with being bossed around by Cassandra; then she isn’t anymore.
“Remember, you’re putting on a show,” Emma is told repeatedly by her vaulting coach, who commends her for her strength and technical mastery but despairs of getting her to show more emotion (insert your own Black Swan reference here). In that regard, Aschan is in much the same place as Emma. Working on her first feature-length film, she proves to be a very competent director from a technical point of view. The cast is uniformly strong as well, with Molin standing out as Cassandra, insecurity almost palpable behind the charming, manipulative façade. Lindquist is also impressive as Sara, though her storyline also suffers from Aschan’s cold, emotionless approach. Sebastian’s exact identity is wisely kept unclear until fairly late into the movie, but once it is revealed, the rest of her story cannot but unfold in a predictable manner, and it becomes clear that it isn’t so much an organic part of the film as a purely intellectual parallel to Emma’s relationship with Cassandra.
In a way, I wish Bad Monkeys had been worse than it is. I wish it were just another bad movie, that the beginning didn’t hold so much promise. That I hadn’t been lured in, hoping to get caught up in Emma and Cassandra’s relationship and its emotional repercussions. Instead all I could do was watch from afar, untouched, frustration building up until the final shot. I really wish I’d liked this movie more.