What do you do when your promising young daughter drops out of law school, cuts off all contact with you, throws caution to the wind and sneaks away to live in a commune that newspaper headlines have deemed a “monkey sex cult”? Why, you follow her there to find out what the bloody hell her muddled mind has got up to.
“Bonobo” is the refreshingly liberated tale of middle-aged and middle-class Judith, a highly-concerned mother who tracks down her child’s whereabouts to the elusive ‘Bonobo House’ — where women and men have chosen to drop out of society at large and taken to living in imitation of the bonobo monkey. Contrary to a civilization many of us believe derived from evolved chimpanzees, bonobos are compassionate, peaceful, matriarchal primates unafraid of diverse and consistent sexual practice. The inhabitants of this retreat, in the style of their raison d’être, use sex to relieve tension and resolve disputes. At one point in the film two handsome young men, after running their mouths dry in an argument, happily make themselves on good terms again by masturbating next to each other. Sex brings the people together, and of course this unsavoury behaviour is all well and good to Judith, albeit a bit strange — as long as her daughter is not partaking in any of it.
It’s through these agape eyes of Judith, played by Tessa Peake-Jones of “Only Fools and Horses” fame, that we experience the unconventional tribal life of Bonobo House’s dwellers. Scientology this is not, and so many of the members are exuberant to invite a visitor in to take a look around. Having set out solely on a mission to rescue Lily, a remarkably mother-embarrassed Eleanor Wyld, from the promiscuous collective she now calls family, Judith is persuaded into staying a while to see for herself and make up her own mind about all this alleged nonsense. Some things get celebratory and others go a little awry, as the exceptionally likeable woman at the forefront of the dramedy struggles to open her mind and shut her mouth to a way of going about things that is nonsensical and utterly foreign to her.
“Bonobo” is the first feature from writer-director Matthew Hammett Knott. His debut is reminiscent of Lukas Moodysson’s “Together” and the work of Charlie Kaufman, all the while examining middle-class British repression and the facade of normalcy, generation divide and the age-old tale of rebellion against one’s parents’ wishes, and the occasionally false all-inclusivity of certain groups. It’s incredibly charming — a highlight scene being when the residents all eat the psychedelic root iboga and party into the night (to a song written and performed by Knott himself!); Judith goes wild alongside the rest of them, only for the audience to later discover that she was merely given stems that had a potency level of about zero. James Aspinall’s colourful cinematography contrasts gloriously exotic set pieces at Bonobo House to what, in comparison, may as well be in black and white: the suburbs where ennui and untogetherness run rampant, and outsiders scoff at the practices of the monkey sex cult members. Yet there is trouble in every paradise, and Knott refuses to shy away from the conflicts that make animals out of humans, or perhaps vice-versa.
“Bonobo” screens at the Santa Barbara Film Festival tonight and tomorrow (and hopefully elsewhere soon), so if you happen to be at the fest take some time to pay a visit to this smart and arousing commune.