Bonobo (2014, Matthew Hammett Knott)

Bonobo has a lot of good instincts, but director Knott and his crew don’t seem to know how to realize them. The most obvious problem is cinematographer James Aspinall, who doesn’t seem to know what he should be doing—Bonobo is always too sharp and too muddy, a decidedly DV problem—but then you realize there’s bad headroom in every single shot of the movie and you’ve got to wonder what Knott thinks he ought to be doing. Knott seems to know what kind of narrative distance the film needs, but can’t execute it due to bad composition and half-hearted writing. Knott co-wrote with Joanna Benecke and they know what scenes the film needs but not how to write them, which fits since Knott doesn’t know how to shoot them and Aspinall doesn’t know how to light them.

Some of the problem is the low budget and the filmmakers not knowing how to compensate. For example, the majority of the action takes place at a “Bonobo community,” where the residents try to do as the bonobo do—lots of hugging, lots of touching, lots of sex—but it’s a house in a residential area so there have to be neighbors. Only Knott’s trying to hide them not having great locations so all of a sudden the suburban look will come through out of nowhere. Of course, Knott doesn’t know how to do establishing shots in the interiors either so it shouldn’t really be a surprise. But—right up until the last scene—somehow every miss manages to be obvious.

With a rewrite and a better director, cinematographer, and composer (while not terrible or anything, Eugene Feygelson’s omnipresent score gets tedious fast), Bonobo could be something special because it’s got a solid premise. Tessa Peake-Jones is a fifty-something suburban (or whatever they call it in the UK) mom to law school dropout Eleanor Wyld. Wyld has run off to the aforementioned bonobo nudist house—six months before the movie begins—and Peake-Jones finally goes to check on her.

There Peake-Jones meets community leader Josie Lawrence, a primatologist who’s stopped observing bonobos in the wild and instead just has lots of sex with the house full of hotties she’s assembled. Her prize stud is James Norton, who just happens to be paired with Wyld for the time being. Norton’s going to quickly reveal himself to just be a manipulative narcissist—mocking Lawrence’s age behind her back to the other dudes and so on—and he’ll be the film’s second biggest plot fail.

The biggest plot fail, however, is Wyld. She and Peake-Jones can’t talk for the first two days Peake-Jones is visiting the house, so Wyld just says crappy things about her mom while Peake-Jones goes through a manners comedy before forming a very nice bond with Lawrence. From that point, the narrative starts following Lawrence as well as Peake-Jones and relegates Wyld to supporting their arcs.

It makes some sense because the writers clearly don’t have a character for Wyld so they’re trying to avoid it (just like establishing shots), but it means there’s a lot of meandering in an eighty minute movie.

Still, Peake-Jones and Lawrence have some really good moments. Norton’s not bad, just got a bad part. And Wyld’s got a lot of potential, shame they don’t do anything with her.

Bonobo seems to know what an indie darling needs to be an indie darling, but Knott doesn’t have a single idea of how to incorporate those elements into his film.

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