As Emma and Cassandra get to know each other, they share a sense of wicked fun and quickly become best friends. But feelings of jealousy, competiveness and sexual attraction have them pushing each other to their limits. As Emma spends more time away from home with Cassandra, little sister Sara begins to discover her own sexual identity, all the while pining for affection from a reluctant babysitter.
As a study of the seemingly insignificant and often ongoing battles people play out in their every interaction with others in life, Swedish director Lisa Aschan’s debut feature is an interesting spotlight. But lingering throughout is a sense of something more shocking impending and, whether intentional or not, this sense never quite feels satisfied. Sometimes anticlimaxes can provoke intrigue, but what She Monkeys projects beyond its closing credits are perhaps a just few select scenes rather than its entire purpose.
Both played by first time actresses, the film focuses on the hot-and-cold relationship between two girls growing up in small-town Sweden. Mathilda Paradeiser is quietly disturbing as Emma, a shy adolescent who joins a local equestrian vaulting club and befriends strong, attractive Cassandra (Linda Molin). At first, Cassandra seems the more mischievous and controlling, taking quietly-determined Emma under her wing as the newest squad member. But as Cassandra’s attraction to Emma grows beyond platonic, Emma begins to assert control as they compete to make the team for an upcoming competition. All the while, Emma’s younger sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist) has to deal with her own confusing emotions – she has a crush on her babysitter cousin and has begun to insist on wearing a bikini, despite her father’s reservations about her young age.
Each scene tells its own story – a psychological showdown between two characters – which shows a mightily impressive attention to detail from both the rookie director and actors, given that there is so little dialogue. It can be very engaging to watch in isolated scenes – be it Emma’s cupping of a jellyfish while blindfolded to prove she can meet Cassandra’s challenges, or her physical and quite serious wrestle with her dad (Sergej Merkusjev) in a fight to keep the television on. Often it also makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing, especially in regards to Sara, who tries to dance in her skimpy new bikini in order to attract the attention of her older cousin while they watch TV.
But with so much time spent on individual scenes, the overarching narrative has been neglected. Given that there’s also almost no music and the director made a conscious decision to remove all branding and advertising from anything in shot (Aschan recently told the Guardian she “wanted the whole world to be neutral”) it almost feels like watching a psychological lab experiment through a one-way mirror. The characters all feel so distant, and with a central character as poker-faced as Emma offering advice to Sara like: “Be tough. Never show your feelings or you’ll get hurt,” the film certainly doesn’t ask the viewer to invest much emotional currency.
Perhaps this is why She Monkeys feels like a single episode of a larger whole, as if the characters have only just been introduced and something else is meant to happen. Yet it never does, and it’s hard to conjure up any interest in spending more time in these characters’ company even if there were another episode to come. It’s one thing to produce a psychological study of female, adolescent power struggles; entirely another to create a story and characters to carry these ideas through a fictional feature film. There’s certainly promise, but She Monkeys never really manages the jump from the former to the latter.