Tribeca Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | April 28, 2011
Director: Lisa Aschan
Writers: Lisa Aschan, Josefine Adolfsson
Starring: Mathilda Paradeiser, Linda Molin, Isabella Lindquist
Our initial introduction to Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser), as she trains her dog with a clicker, showcases her intense desire for power and control. Emma’s life philosophy — which she attempts to pass along to her younger sister, Sara (Isabella Lindquist) — is to never let anyone see her emotions; and she does not talk much either.
Later, when we watch Emma as she auditions for an equestrian gymnastics team (essentially, yoga on horseback), it becomes immediately apparent that Emma is prepared in terms of technique and strength, but her frigid personality will be a severe hindrance when it comes time to perform for an audience. Emma is essentially like a robot, her movements and actions appear to be overtly precise and calculated; she has an incredibly intense personality with an unwavering vision.
Emma is chosen to join the equestrian team and she makes fast friends with Cassandra (Linda Molin). Cassandra is the star of the team — at least in her own mind — and offers to help Emma get up to speed on things; but there is a catch, Cassandra will need to maintain full control of their friendship. At first, Emma is happy to concede to Cassandra’s manipulations in exchange for her friendship. Cassandra has experienced aspects of life that Emma is unfamiliar with (Emma seems to have lived a sheltered existence thus far), so Emma hopes to learn more from Cassandra than just some ways to improve her poses. But after a series of situations leave Emma feeling like a heel, Emma decides to stand up to Cassandra and the two young girls find themselves jockeying for the prime alpha female position. It is also worth noting that Emma has a tendency to let things bottle up and explode, and by the time she decides to stand up to Cassandra, her cork has already popped.
There are a ton of raging hormones that factor into the equation as well. Fifteen-year-old Emma and eight-year-old Sara are both in different stages of their sexual maturation — and both girls are visibly hindered by not having an older female role model. We do not know what happened to their mother, but they are being raised solely by their father (Sergej Merkusjev) whose work causes him to rarely be present. Both Emma and Sara find themselves in awkward sexual situations. Sara is informed at her swimming lessons that she must wear a bikini top; she then wears her new leopard print bikini while suggestively dancing for her older cousin, Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega), in order to woo him. Later, Sara finds herself in bed with Sebastian, unable to establish what is appropriate touching for a male cousin versus her father. (Luckily, Sebastian knows where to draw the line.) Emma, on the other hand, finds herself aggressively courting a male, then being aggressively pursued by a female; she really does not seem to know what to make of it all.
She Monkeys is an emotionally complex and empowering film directed by a woman (Lisa Aschan), written by two women (Lisa Aschan and Josefine Adolfsson) and featuring two strong female leading characters (Mathilda Paradeiser and Linda Molin). She Monkeys is exactly what I wanted Hanna to be: a coming of age story about a pubescent girl who tirelessly trains not just to succeed but to survive. Emma learns when she needs to make compromises and when she needs to take what she believes she rightfully deserves. An increasingly complicated character, Emma often finds herself doing things that are not worthy of the audience’s sympathy; but it is impossible not to respect her tenacity in developing greater strength, control, composure, and even some presence. By no means flawless in her moral fiber, Emma is nonetheless a much more realistic cinematic role model for young women than Hanna (Hanna).
Writer-director Lisa Aschan’s feature-length debut possesses a prevailing coldness in its atmosphere, emotions, and color palate that seems to be unique to Scandinavia. Aschan’s adroit depiction of multifaceted female characters proves that she is not afraid to go to some emotionally dark and ugly places while always maintaining an uncanny sense of realism. She Monkeys is certainly not a fun film, but is an amazing experience nonetheless.