Weird documentaries are great. They’re great because they are weird showcases of oddball people who should not exist but clearly are, on camera, for our enlightenment.
The issue with weird documentaries is that they skirt the border of crazy, of uncomfortable, of wrong. This is why weird documentaries are so great: they expose a unique people, place, or culture that is attractive enough on its own but, paired with a political or social issue, the film is gold in your hands.
You get that with My Monkey Baby, a 2009 Channel 4 TV documentary that is streaming now on Netflix. The doc follows a few Americans—couples Jesus and Carmen and Lori and Jim in addition to loner Mary Lynn—as they live their lives with monkeys as babies. No, these monkeys aren’t pets but are considered to be babies, surrogate humans, replacements for actual children.
Each of them has their own reason for owning a monkey as a baby. Some don’t want human children to grow up and want a solution for a forever baby while others literally hate children and think having a monkey baby is a better option. What sense does any of this make? Zero but it is highly entertaining. This mania is compounded as the monkeys have names like “Silly Willy” and “Jessica Marie” and are paraded around, in and out of houses, in uncomfortable displays of familial pride.
Where the doc gets tricky and uncomfortable is when you realize what these monkeys are doing to these people and what they, in turn, are doing to the monkey. In almost all of the featured parents’ stories, the monkey has pushed them away from friends and family, becoming the cause for isolation. The monkey is almost always a symbol for something more, whether severe empty nest or sexuality struggles. Class wars loom above as you see these characters have questionable living situations and habits while (government) money is squandered on literal monkey business.
Atop of this, there’s the question of ethical ownership. In a particularly uncomfortable scene, where Jesus and Carmen go to retrieve their weeks old monkey baby, Butters, you see first-hand how this pet relationship is a form of abuse. You see how deprived the poor monkey mothers actually are as the humans giggle at them from cages. The entire film you watch the monkey babies in a state of catatonia, dazedly guided from one place to another. It’s rather uncomfortable and, for some, it’s enough to turn off the movie.
No, My Monkey Baby is not a new classic or even that great of a documentary but it is fascinating. It’s a weird doc about weird people, something that probably shouldn’t exist and certainly shouldn’t exist on film. It’s a careful film too as director Lynn Alleway presents the characters with a great deal of respect. Do they deserve it? Probably not but she does a good job dignifying them.
If interested, the movie is available to screen now and is an odd hour watch: catch it here, my Silly Willies.