Film of the week: We are the Best!

Lukas Moodysson (Together) finds common cause with a latterday-punk girl band in early 1980s Sweden in this return to his rebel-comedy roots.

Jonathan Romney

from our May 2014 issue

Lukas Moodysson’s status as the prodigy of Swedish cinema has somewhat faded in recent years, partly as a result of following two abrasively experimental films (A Hole in My Heart, Container) with the leaden globalism statement Mammoth. We Are the Best! comes as a surprise – at once a return to the youth-feminist energy of his 1998 debut Show Me Love and a return to comedy, 14 years after his much loved Together. Compared to the director’s darker work, We Are the Best! might seem an easy option but it’s clearly a very personal film – not least because it is based on a comic strip by his wife Coco Moodysson. She is presumably the original for Bobo (the candid, solemnly androgynous Mira Barkhammar), whose early-teen insecurities provide the film’s emotional focus.

Set in the early 80s, We Are the Best! feels bang-on about the punk experience of the time, because it is at once about getting it right and getting it wrong. The pubescent proto-Riot Grrrl trio get it wrong in that they arrive on the scene way too late: everyone keeps saying that punk is dead, Klara’s big brother has moved on to Joy Division and the other girls at school dance in pink Lycra to the Human League.

And yet the trio get it right in that they represent the essence of the original punk idea – reacting to boredom and banality, seizing the moment, defiantly cheeking the adults and would-be adults around them. And they do it with only one song in their repertoire – magnificently brattish protest number ‘Hate the Sport’, into which the outspokenly political Klara (Mira Grosin) compresses all her rage, and for which the subtitlers come through with flying colours: “The atomic bombs blow up our cities, yet you want more tennis committees.”

Despite the trio’s gaucheness, they come across as authentic feminist heroines, models of creative self-determination. Like their characters, the three young leads, who go at their parts with infectious ebullience and daring, seem to create themselves as we watch – Barkhammar and Grosin are apparently trying their instruments for the first time, while Liv LeMoyne as Hedvig audaciously undergoes the screen baptism of having her long hair cropped on film. This is a movie about self-liberation and about friendship overcoming obstacles and romantic rivalry, and a reminder of why teenagers have traditionally formed bands: the mere act of saying “We’re in a band” makes it so, whether or not you have any instruments, songs or talent. In one scene, Klara reminds the depressive Bobo about what’s good in her life: “You’re in the world’s greatest band.” And, in the moment she says it, of course it’s true.

There is some material here that you perhaps need to be Swedish and of a certain age to appreciate fully – such as the exact cultural significance of the band Ebba Grön. Other humour is of more general period relevance – the self-absorbed post-hippie laxness of Bobo’s divorcee mother and Klara’s embarrassing clarinet-playing dad, for instance. There’s also a terrific double act in unreconstructed 70s rock clods Kenneth and Roger, the youth-club workers who think they can teach this ‘girl band’ how a guitar is handled – then blanch at Hedvig’s fretboard prowess.

Generally atmospheric and relaxed, the film only itself erupts into frenetic punk mode during the end credits, as the girls lark around with cheerful obnoxiousness in a fast-food outlet. We Are the Best! is a low-key pleasure. It is perhaps not a project that tests Moodysson as a director but it resoundingly shows his brilliance at directing young performers; he’d be a hell of a lot better at running a youth club than Kenneth and Roger.

 

In the May 2014 issue of Sight & Sound

Punk’s not dead

After more than a decade of dark, difficult work from Lukas Moodysson, the director has returned to the observant, upbeat charm of his earliest films with We Are the Best!, a tale of a trio of young female misfits in Sweden in the early 1980s who decide to form a band. The director talks to Ashley Clark.

  • Sight & Sound: the May 2014 issue

    Sight & Sound: the May 2014 issue

    Everything you needed to know about Hollywood before the censor, plus Walerian Borowczyk reappraised, Lukas Moodysson on We Are the Best!, John...

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