Somewhere in liberal-minded but boring Sweden, two teenage girls begin a rebellion. If the premise of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! sounds familiar, that’s because it’s roughly identical to that of the writer-director’s charming 1998 debut, Show Me Love.
As well as being something of a retread, We Are the Best! is a thematic retreat from its predecessor, Mammoth, a well-meaning if contrived globalization parable. Artistically, however, the new film is a rebirth. Lightly plotted but abundantly felt, it embodies the youthful high spirits of its protagonists.
Stockholm 7th-graders and natural born dissidents, boyish Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Mohawk-haired Klara (Mira Grosin) are drawn to punk rock — even though Klara’s older brother insists the movement is dead. (It’s 1982, and he now listens to Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen.) The girls decide to start a band on a whim, simply to aggravate the patronizing older boys whose heavy-metal group monopolizes the rehearsal room at the local youth center.
The facility has a drum kit and an electric bass; Klara appoints herself singer-bassist, leaving Bobo the drums. Klara just wrote a song that expands from the girls’ hatred of gym class to encompass such downers as nuclear power. But neither of them has any musical skill or knowledge.
This lack causes them to reevaluate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), an 8th-grader who’s just as much the outsider as they are, but for a very different reason: She’s a staid churchgoer. Hedvig is also a skilled classical guitarist, and Bobo and Klara figure they can remake her with a haircut and exposure to an anti-God song by their favorite Swedish punk group.
Hedvig’s reeducation doesn’t work out exactly as planned, but she does join the band, and her skills prove useful. She answers Klara’s elementary musical questions (“So what are chords?”). More importantly, she shames the middle-aged hipsters who run the youth center when they smugly assume that none of the girls can play.
If Moodysson had chosen a negative rather than positive title, the movie might be called Adults Are the Worst. In addition to the youth-center guys, the girls must suffer such fools as Bobo’s divorced mother, who always seems to have a new boyfriend, and Klara’s father, who tries to jam with them on clarinet. Seen through 13-year-old eyes, most of the parents are hopelessly juvenile.
Yet a clash with Hedvig’s mother over her daughter’s hacked-off tresses demonstrates the movie’s generous nature and layered characterizations. Mom is upset by Hedvig’s new look, but the lesson she tries to teach is gently Christian. (The director himself is a believer who included religious visions in Lilya 4-Ever, his child-prostitution drama.)
Not all the trouble comes from grownups. Bobo and Klara clash over the latter’s bossiness, at one point jealous Bobo makes a play for the punker who might loosely be termed Klara’s boyfriend.
We Are the Best! was adapted from a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by the filmmaker’s spouse, Coco Moodysson. The director tells the story in a documentary-like style, using hand-held camera and jump cuts to convey adolescent energy, frustration and mutability.
Sometimes too faithful to teenage aimlessness, We Are the Best! can be shapeless and uneventful. But the movie often jolts to life, whether with outbursts of hostility or moments of gleeful female bonding. When they show the audience at a “Santa Rock” teen-center concert that punk’s not dead, Bobo, Klara and Hedvig pull together like the best troupers in all of dreary Sweden.