Measuring the full emotional extent of a hormonal teenage mind is something cinema rarely manages to get right, normally forcing its characters into easily categorised pop psychology pigeonholes. When a rare film actually nails it, we should take notice, as in Swedish director Lisa Aschan’s startlingly chilly feature debut, She Monkeys.
Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) is a quiet, composed, meticulous teenage girl and a keen equestrian vaulter. She meets Cassandra (Linda Molin), a fellow vaulter, and the two embark on a friendly relationship which soon seems to become something more. As the competitive pressure of qualifying for their vaulting team mounts, so too does the sexual tension, with some unexpected consequences.
It would be very easy for something like this to start as a meet-cute and quickly devolve into a sleazily exploitative middle-aged man’s fantasy. Guided by Aschan’s firm – yes, feminine – directorial hand, it avoids this in favour of a more complete study not only of relationships, but of that awkward passage all young girls face into womanhood.
Things escalate slowly – hand-holding and suggestive stretching exercises create an atmosphere of pent-up lusting – while Aschan cross-cuts the central relationship with the disturbing precociousness of Emma’s young sister, Sara (Isabella Lindqvist). Sara pines for her babysitter cousin, Sebastian (Kevin Caicedo Vega), and begs her father to buy her a bikini so she might seduce him. Her suggestive dancing implies too much time spent watching misogynistic rap music videos, but any drum-banging beyond that is appropriately left at the door.
An early scene in which Sara is chided for not wearing a top in a swimming pool might initially seem like a comment on the modern world’s more protective attitude towards children in the wake of moral panics about sex offenders. Rather, it remarks how ironically, such a reactionary move only helps to sexualise young children at an early age, suggesting they have something to hide, and furthermore, it by nature leads young children to buy into provocative imagery far earlier than they ever should.
If Sara is pushing for a sexual identity long before her time, then Emma is awash in reluctance; we see her playfulness with Cassandra, exploring her feelings and urges, but she is unsure, nervous even. This tension is heightened not only by their physical jostling as vaulters, but by a transfixing game of wills between the two; Cassandra is clearly the more powerful and confident one, generating a few amusing moments initially, but turning strange, and fiercely, stoically competitive later on.
Their communique tends to be vague, for Aschan does not heap exposition on, instead relying on smart editing to convey feeling, while juxtaposing it ably against Sara’s own absurd quest for womanhood. Their awkwardness and lack of adult conversation only helps to remind us that, despite their developing female forms, Emma and Cassandra are still young girls. Thus, the quiet ratcheting of tension becomes uncomfortable the longer we wait for the inevitable payoff, something which is inevitably more sensual than sexual, quite appropriately.
How these girls deal with the notion of rejection again compounds their immaturity; things turn briefly violent in act three, and while, just with its potential sexiness, it teases going full-tilt thriller, it remains admirably restrained and grounded. Artfully, the benign nature of this confrontation becomes a lot more unsettling and feels truer.
It is rare to find a film so mature and thoughtful in its treatment of this age group – normally these sorts of films just patronise. While the hormonal confusion might leave viewers cold in a sense, Aschan compensates for this with a sumptuous visual style, tidy and calm, making the brief 80-minute run time feel even breezier than one would expect. The wonderfully subdued performances – from Paradeiser especially – help emphasise a disquieting, passive-aggressive mood throughout.
This quietly tense drama piercingly probes the travails of young girls on the cusp of womanhood, with all of the hormone-fuelled jealousy, duplicity and confusion that this entails.
She Monkeys is in UK cinemas this Friday.