Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best! Is a movie that earns its exclamation point. It's one of the freshest and most refreshing rock n' roll movies I've seen in years; a warm and infectious coming-of-age tale that occasionally manages to rival Cameron Crowe's indelible Almost Famous in its specificity, wisdom and tenderness. Like that film, it captures music's mysterious power to captivate, motivate, enthrall, wound and heal, and it regards the world through the eyes of its young protagonists with consistency and accuracy.
The film is set in Stockholm circa 1982, where we're introduced to two likable youngsters named Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin). It took me a couple of minutes to realize that they were girls. With their tomboyish personalities, gender-neutral clothes, short haircuts and vaguely boyish faces, it's no surprise that they've had trouble fitting in with the other girls at their school. Bobo is quiet, bespectacled and shy, while the mohawk-sporting Klara is brash, confident and mischievous, but they share a deep bond with each other (perhaps because no one else seems interested in sharing even a casual bond with them). They are united by a number of shared affections, chief among them a fondness for punk rock. Eventually, the two girls make an impulsive decision: they need to start a punk rock band.
There are a few problems with this idea. The first is that punk – according to grown-ups, anyway – is more or less dead. The second is that Bobo and Klara don't have any musical training whatsoever and have no idea how to play any instruments. Still, to defy such limitations is the essence of punk, so the girls go ahead and start their band, anyway. Their first song is called “Hate the Sport” (the lyrics of which are largely, “Hate the sport! Hate the sport!”), because they hate sports. Klara plays bass and Bobo plays drums, though it would probably be more accurate to say that Klara makes noises with the bass and Bobo whacks at the drums without any real sense of timing or purpose (beyond “let's make some damn noise,” anyway).
Eventually, the girls realize that their musical limitations will only take them so far, so they need to recruit a third member. They train their sights on Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a soft-spoken Christian girl who eats alone and plays classical guitar. She certainly doesn't fit the traditional punk mold, but Bobo and Klara aren't particularly concerned by that. Hedvig is a loner like them, and she knows how to handle a guitar. Bobo and Klara are confident that the rest will fall into place. When Klara voices concerns about Hedvig's deep-rooted Christianity, Bobo shrugs it off: “We'll influence her away from it.”
I love the way the relationship between the three girls unfolds, as Hedvig manages to find a new side of herself without compromising who she is. Hedvig eagerly accepts the offer of friendship, and proves surprisingly open-minded when it comes to using her talents in the service of anti-authoritarian punk anthems. Hedvig won't share a stolen beer with them, swear like them or toss her faith aside for the sake of currying favor, but she will strum along furiously to “Hate the Sport.” There are struggles, jealousies, boy problems and other challenges that crop up over the course of this three-way friendship (an incident involving a haircut is both touchingly familiar and wince-inducing), but these are mere necessary growing pains on the path to a beautiful, profound, punk-fueled bond.
I tend to have mixed feelings towards coming-of-age films in general, as so many of them feel overwhelmed by the benefit of hindsight – an adult's wisdom-enhanced memories of youth. We Are the Best! never betrays its youthful perspective, managing to make us feel like we're witnessing each moment as it happens despite the period setting. Adults seem to us as they seem to the girls – confusing, absent, slightly imposing and small-minded. They drift in and out of the movie without ever quite coming into focus, save for a group of heavy metal rockers (the scrappy outfit known as “Iron Fist”) who regard this new “band” with playful affection and provide a couple of small favors. I have never been to Sweden, I have never been much of a punk enthusiast and I have never been a 13-year-old girl, but I felt a strong kinship with these characters. That's what great filmmaking does. This infectious blast of jubilant punk strikes nary a false note.
We Are the Best!
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2013