Director: Matthew Hammett Knott
Cast: Tessa Peake-Jones, Josie Lawrence, James Norton, Eleanor Wyld
Watch Bonobo online in the UK: iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Eircom / Virgin Movies / EE / TalkTalk
Co-written and directed by Matthew Hammett Knott, Bonobo is a low-budget British drama that stars Tessa Peake-Jones (Raquel from Only Fools and Horses) as Judith, a middle-aged suburban mother who discovers that her twentysomething daughter Lily (Eleanor Wyld) has quit law school and joined a sex cult-slash-commune modelled after the behaviour patterns of bonobo apes. Judith turns up at the commune intending to drag Lily home (cue an amusing, “Oh, MUM – so embarrassing…” moment), but she’s persuaded to stay for a while and observe the commune’s way of life by ex-flower child cult leader Anita (Josie Lawrence).
Frankly, it’s amazing that it’s taken someone this long to cast Josie Lawrence as a new age hippie sex-cult leader. She’s predictably perfect as the softly-spoken Anita she generates convincing chemistry with her co-stars. Tessa Peake-Jones is equally good, delivering a dignified and thoughtful central performance as Judith: her heart-to-heart scenes with Lawrence’s character are genuinely touching.
That said, the film suffers considerably from a lack of secondary characterisation, particularly in the case of Wyld’s Lily, whose only personality trait appears to be a penchant for teenage-style sulking. At any rate, it’s never made clear exactly what she’s getting out of Bonobo, or what drew her to the cult in the first place. The characterisation problem also extends to her fellow cult members, who are so thinly drawn that they might as well not exist. The sole exception is Will Tudor’s hedonistic alpha male Toby, who aggressively flirts with Judith and eventually exacerbates tensions within the house.
Commendably, the script focuses on Judith’s muted but nonetheless affecting journey of discovery, which makes a welcome change from the usual perspectives. In addition, Matthew Hammett Knott keeps the tone relatively low-key – there’s surprisingly little sex for a film about a sex cult, with the communal activities largely restricted to mutual feeding (Bonobo-style) and tactile greetings. The effect of this, however, is to give the film a level of believability and realism, since it conveys the eventual boredom of such a set-up rather than paint it as a non-stop orgy.
In addition, it’s worth noting that the film is not without humour, particularly in the scene where Anita forces a sit-down mediation between Judith and Lily, with them both hooked up to colour-coded mood indicators. If anything, the film could have used slightly more of that level of absurdity.
In short, this is an amiable and surprisingly sensitive drama anchored by a pair of strong performances from Tessa Peake-Jones and Josie Lawrence, though it’s slightly let down by its poorly-defined supporting cast.