Delivering one of the most intense and complex feature debuts to come from Sweden since Lukas Moodysson’s “Show Me Love,” helmer Lisa Aschan thrillingly subverts the coming-of-age genre, political correctness, gender roles and (without ever becoming graphic) just about everything to do with the depiction of developing sexuality in the taboo-breaking “She Monkeys.” Winner of the Gothenburg fest’s Nordic film prize and critics’ award, pic plays with traditional expectations in an unsettling manner that sometimes feels almost dangerous. Although “Monkeys” is certain to be in demand for fests, its lack of a conventional narrative will limit its commercial potential.
With situations and characters developed more through sophisticated, psychologically astute setpieces and performances than through dialogue or backstory, the film centers on sisters Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), a talented teen gymnast, and Sara (Isabella Lindquist), a precocious 7-year-old. The girls live with their father (Sergej Merkusjev), a vague presence who is only rarely in the frame.
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When Emma joins a riding stable where other teens train to perform acrobatics on horseback, she meets the slightly older Cassandra (Linda Molin), and the two begin a relationship fraught with physical and psychological challenges. Soon, lines are crossed and the stakes become higher and higher. Meanwhile, in another battle for power and control, Sara, who is in love with her cousin and sometime-babysitter Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega), initiates some startling, sexually charged experiments of her own.
Exploring girlhood in the context of modern society, Aschan’s provocative visual language links pleasure and pain as she focuses on the arousing nature of unpleasant things. Carefully framed compositions that are near cliche (a father cuddling his young child, a babysitter helping a youngster with teeth brushing) take on fresh significance. Likewise, simple actions, repeated over the course of the film, accrue new, disturbing meanings.
Just as remarkably, Aschan draws convincing, naturalistic performances from her young non-pro actors while putting them in highly charged situations. Pint-sized Lindquist, in particular, merits praise for her delivery of some very grown-up dialogue.
The stellar tech package is led by Linda Wassberg’s atmospheric, tightly focused widescreen lensing, with Kia Nordqvist’s spot-on costumes and production design key to the pic’s meaning. Finnish composer Sami Sanpakkila well-used electronica score sets a disquieting mood.
“She Monkeys” marks the last of five films in the Swedish Film Institute’s Rookie Project, a highly competitive initiative that made it possible for top young talents to make a first, low-budget feature.