Swedish director Lisa Aschan’s “She Monkeys” is a patient study of young female desire. The plot has a simple trajectory: Two teen girls shift from friends to competitors while vying for the top spot of an equestrian acrobatics team. The subtext runs deeper, however, as the coming-of-age story adopts a bleak Darwinian perspective. While her views on developing femininity break no new ground, Aschan maintains a solid grasp on the material.
Her script (co-written by Josefine Adolfsson) mainly takes the perspective of Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), a new addition to the team who’s initially encouraged by the seductive Cassandra (Linda Molin) to enjoy the physicality of their pursuit. In short order, they’re playfully flirting with two men at the swimming pool, then teasing them on dates. Over time, however, Emma and Cassandra develop an erotic friction that threatens to impact their athletic pursuits. While Cassandra adopts a playful mentality and Emma stays calm, it becomes increasingly hard to tell how they really feel about each other until the tension finally erupts with a violent outburst.
The two actresses generate conflict through insinuative stares and gestures. Although “She Monkeys” requires virtually no sound to explain the underlying narrative thread, the drama tends to feel slight and Aschan doesn’t sufficiently develop her characters to explain their relationship’s undulations. However, the essential psychology at work creates an effective internal momentum.
Emma’s problems are contrasted with those of her observant seven-year-old sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist). Her awareness of her sibling’s emerging adulthood leads to unorthodox desires, asking her father for a bra and harboring a crush on her older cousin Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega). Although well acted by promising newcomer Lindquist, Sara’s sexual curiosity is sometimes heavy-handed — she watches two horses mate with a bemused expression and performs a wannabe flirtatious dance for Sebastian. Emma and Sara inhabit two sides of the same movie coin, serving as vessels for exploring primal instincts.
Having established this thematic interest fairly early on, Aschan fails to build the scenario past its fundamental elements. Although it takes the form of a thriller, “She Monkeys” has far more experimental aims than implied by the genre’s conventions. More than anything, it emphasizes body language as a timeless form of communication, turned into a dazzling spectacle by the poetic image of two women who are literally engaged in a balancing act — on the back of a horse — and equally engaged in a figurative one as well.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having won the Best Narrative Feature prize at the Tribeca Film Festival this past week, “She Monkeys” is destined to continue having a strong life on the festival circuit, although it probably won’t make much of a dent if it does land a limited release.
criticWIRE grade: B