Two teenage girls find friendship, rivalry, and possibly something more, in the competitive world of horse vaulting. These are two of the playful, selfish, maddening she-monkeys that give this obscure Swedish film its name.
Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) joins an equestrian vaulting team where she meets the slightly older Cassandra (Linda Molin) and the two hit it off. Initially the older girl takes the beginner under her wing and they work on her technique. Soon, they’re hanging out together and building a giggly, conspiratorial intimacy.
There is a third she-monkey however: Emma’s six-year-old sister, Sara. While her elder sister takes advantage of her independence to hang around with her new friend, young Sara has her own preoccupations. Primarily the fact that she is in love with her teenage cousin Sebastian.
Both daughters live with their father, and any female involved in their existence is not mentioned. Not only is the mystery of the missing mother not addressed, but the audience is left to join the dots together throughout the film. She Monkeys (Apflickorna in Swedish, which translates as monkey girls) eschews conventional plot devices like backstory and even dialogue that would introduce us to the characters and give some clue to what exactly they are thinking and feeling. It is clear that Emma and Cassandra have become friends, but when the older girl says she loves her friend, it is less certain what kind of love this is.
Lisa Aschan, She Monkey‘s director and co-writer, told The Guardian that she “wanted every scene to be a duel.” Aschan went on to explain the film in terms of genre, “I see this film as a Western. I wanted to investigate how people behave together.” Not that Westerns presumably have the cinematic monopoly of looking at how humans interact, but competition is certainly woven into their very fabric.
If Aschan suggests we should make sense of Emma’s relationships with both Cassandra and her younger sister as dominated by a jostling for power, this is fairly subtle. One game Cassandra plays is to blindfold her friend and lead her around, finishing in the sea where she plops a jellyfish in her hands to see how she reacts. When Emma calmly decides to squish the creature, this must be the She Monkey‘s equivalent of a shot to the head in a shootout.
Less oblique, and more provocative, is the character of Sara. Played by Isabella Lindquist, Sara is endearingly guileless, and when this innocence runs up against the adult world, the results can be disquieting. One example happens at a swimming class where Sara is only wearing trunks and is told off by the teacher for not wearing a bikini top. Seeing this young girl covering her chest with her arms and becoming aware of the shame of nakedness is pitiable. In a later scene that boldly confronts her nascent sexuality, need for affection and what is appropriate behaviour, Sara asks the object of her affections, Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega), to scratch her tummy as he puts her to bed at night, much to his (and the audience’s) discomfort.
The whole film is shot in the lovely milky light of the Scandinavian summer. An overall aesthetic of pared-down Nordic minimalism is added to by a subtle electronic soundtrack and Lisa Aschan’s efforts to ensure that no brands or advertisements are visible.
In Sweden the critics have been going mad for the film, and it has also won a Silver Bear in Berlin, Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca as well as being nominated for the BFI’s Sutherland Trophy for “the most original and imaginative [first or second feature] film introduced at the National Film Theatre during the year”. Lisa Aschan has repeatedly said that she would rather ask questions than give answers. This is all well and good, but often it can be difficult to discern when – and what – questions are being asked. It’s certainly no The Good The Bad and the Ugly, but if it is a Western, it must be one of the most unusual ever made.