By Emma Silverthorn
Simulating the lifestyle of a bonobo ape has its attractions. The bonobo, our closest living relative, are compassionate, free-loving animals who very rarely experience conflict; when problems do arise amongst them the bonobo’s quickly diffuse them with bouts of promiscuous sexual activity. The species is a vision of sixties counterculture utopia and the ripe inspiration for Matthew Hammet Knott’s first feature length film.
In the Dorset countryside, magnetic Anita (wonderfully played by Josie Lawrence) has formed a small commune in which her followers live by the ‘make love, not war’ bonobo principle. The commune members feed each other in silence (mostly fruit), enjoy communal sexual activity for fun and conflict resolution, and cover each other in glitter. The scope for comedy and complication is vast and perhaps obvious; humans don’t do as well as chimps when it comes to solving everything with sex. And commune member Ralph’s (James Norton) ill-fated suggestion of an orgy following a major schism within the group highlights just that.
Thankfully Knott’s script doesn’t succumb to staid stereotypes as it might considering its plotlines. Suburban, uptight mother Judith (Tessa Peake-Jones) arrives at the bonobo home uninvited in order to extricate her daughter, law-school drop-out, Lily (Eleanor Wyld) from the group. Though Judith and Lily are certainly depicted as products of their environments, Judith’s being provincial isolation and suffocation, Lily’s being the equally suffocating atmosphere of maternal expectation, Knott’s characters develop in ways that are both complex and surprising. Ralph’s naked yogic shoulder stand might shock Judith for a moment and Lily might run away from her mother’s embrace like a rebellious teenager but these characters prove to be more than mere caricatures of prude and hippy.
Aside from the central mother-daughter concern Bonobo is full of both funny and touching moments of connection and understanding. Couple Eva (Patricia Potter) and Malcolm’s (Orlando Seale) reasons for finally questioning the bonobo way of life had me a little glassy-eyed! Watch this film to enjoy the excellent performances from British comedy stalwarts Tessa Peake-Jones, Josie Lawrence and Carolyn Pickles and for the lovely, warm feeling it will give you inside.