Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 13, 2011 2:09 pm 
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Rivalry and friendship between budding girls on a sports team

Swedish first-timer Lisa Aschan's She Monkeys is like Céline Sciamma's 2007 French coming-of-ager Water Lilies, about two girls who bond around a challenging female sport, in Water Lilies water ballet, and here, equestrian gymnastics. There is a popular, or more confident, girl, and the more timid newcomer, though the distinction gets twisted along the way when the strong girl turns out not to be invincible. Here it's introverted Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) and more experienced equestrian Cassandra (Linda Molin), who become playful friends, and later when Emma turns out to be strong and promising, rivals. This is different from the French film in that the two challenge each other to more real wrongdoing, and Emma has a seven-year-old sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist), whose desire to become a woman and precocious lust for her babysitter cousin Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega) leads her to extravagances of her own. In fact when the energy begins to fade in the Cassandra-Emma relationship, Sara comes in handy by providing comic relief that also pushes boundaries a bit.

In Water Lilies, Marie (Pauline Acquart) isn't on the water ballet team, but thinks she wants to be. She admires Floriane (Adele Haenel), a popular girl on the team who has the boys running around after her. She Monkeys provides some scenes of the equestrian training, but Cassandra and Emma hardly seem interested in boys, who aren't really around much, as they are at Water Lilies' swim center. Floriane is a big flirt, though it's just a pose; another girl, Marie's former friend is closer to really getting laid. In both of these films, one of the girls turns out to desire the other sexually.

She Monkeys may push boundaries a bit more, but it is less successful at showing its two "girlfriends" in a real social context than the French Film is. Floriane's manipulation of Marie seems quite true of the politics of adolescence. Emma is a complete enigma, perhaps tougher than her seemingly more confident rival: but how useful is this paradox when there is so little action? Certainly there is cruelty here, and it's impossible to say who's to blame for it. Both these films are quiet and subtle, and not without slow moments. It's not a disadvantage that She Monkeys is 11 minutes shorter than Water Lilies. Those who aren't particularly fascinated by young girls in their first flowering may find either of them tedious. But both develop their concerns and tensions with unwavering focus, and both are good looking films. I would give the edge to Water Lilies because of the beauty and unity of its water scenes and the fuller social context, but She Monkeys' subplot of the little sister is a nice counterpart, and it's interesting that the two girls are not as clearly distinguishable, not as easy to say which one is in the wrong, or the stronger. She Monkeys clearly establishes that Lisa Ashan, whose first feature this is as Water Lilies was Sciamma's, is a talent to watch with a distinctive style.

She Monkeys is the fifth and last of a series of low budget first films chosen by competition for the Swedish Film Institute's Rookie Project. It won the Gothenberg, Sweden festival's Nordic film prize and critics' award. Seen and reviewed as part of the San Francisco film festival of 2011, this debuted in the US at Tribeca in 2010.

As Tribeca wrapped it was announced She Monkeys won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature. This included $25,000 in award money and the "art award" of a painting by Robert De Niro, Sr. entitled "Anna Christie Entering the Bar, 1965-1967."

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