Review: She Monkeys, dir. Lisa Aschan
Lisa Aschan’s feature debut She Monkeys, which has already picked up Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca amongst other awards, is out tomorrow. BEVer Emily Vermont gives us the low-down.
Having read the synopses beforehand I was prepared for what to expect with this debut feature from Swedish director Lisa Aschan: a “coming-of-age drama centred on two teenage girls locked in a bitter power struggle.” But as the film played out, I was happy to find myself realising that this wasn’t all there was to it.
The film purports to focus on the two teenage girls Emma (14) and Cassandra (15) as they forge a tentative, testosterone-fuelled friendship through an equestrian vaulting team. This puzzling relationship does indeed make up much of the film’s focus, yet the star of the show clearly emerged as Emma’s seven-year-old sister Sarah.
From early on in the film it’s apparent that there isn’t a mother figure in the sisters’ lives. As such, Sarah at first appears happy looking to their father for what a grown-up should be – being topless, happy letting people scratch your tummy because it feels nice and washing with shaving cream. But as the film goes on, and as she gets made aware of her femininity, she begins swiftly and unnervingly to imitate what can only be understood as the accepted womanliness of the mainstream media.
Warned one day at swimming class that she’s too old to be bare-chested, she runs to hide her shame behind a potted plant, before insisting that her dad buy her a bikini. Given a selection to choose from, she takes away the most skimpy leopard print option, refusing when dad asks if he can see her in the dressing room. Later, when teenage cousin Sebastian who she’s madly in love with comes round, she forces him to sit and watch her while she performs a dance for him, swinging her hair about and attempting moves that she hopes will make him love her too.
By the end of the film we come to realise that the commentary on power struggle isn’t just portrayed in the two teenage girls, but in all the females in the cast. The four men who feature are all victims of the girls’ intimidation; two young lads from the swimming pool are humiliated in different ways by Cassandra, the dad is shouted down by Emma, Sebastian is a nervous wreck around his prematurely sexualised cousin Sarah. Even the vaulting teacher slaps the arses of the young girls like she’s a man, and Emma’s power-experiments leak also into her relationship with her younger sister, and her dog.
One sign of hope that Sarah won’t grow up to be like her elder sister is when she takes the “clicker” that they’ve been training the dog with and symbolically buries it with his help. This is the only glimmer of positivity to end the film. Although Emma ends up victorious, by this stage we are left wondering how much less vulnerable the older Cassandra is to her; whether there is a goodie and a baddie in this relationship at all.
This was an unnerving yet laudably restrained piece of cinema; something that struck a chord with my memories of ten years at an all-girls school. Whilst female-directors-making-coming-of-age-dramas has become somewhat of a cliché, I do believe that She Monkeys brings something new to the table. The test will be in seeing where Aschan will take us from here.