Director: Lukas Moodysson
Screenplay: Lukas Moodysson
Based on the graphic novel by: Coco Moodysson
Producers: Lars Jonsson
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 102 minutes
Swedish director Lukas Moodysson is one of the big names of world cinema that I have somehow previously never managed to get round to. Although highly praised by critics on the whole, his catalogue seems to be a very mixed bag in terms of stylistic choices and critical reaction. His most warmly regarded films seem to be his first two features, Fucking Amal (blandly retitled Show Me Love for English-speaking markets) and Together. Often described as upbeat and optimistic narrative films, this highly praised pair were followed by Lilya 4-Ever, an equally praised film with far darker subject matter. After this Moodysson seemed to be drifting into evermore troubling and experimental areas, with the critically lambasted A Hole in my Heart which Moodysson admitted was designed to be an abhorrent experience for audiences, and the avant-garde ‘silent movie with sound’ Container. With Mammoth, Moodysson took a step back towards narrative cinema but critics found the film preachy and unoriginal.
I always intended to get round to Moodysson eventually but this somewhat daunting catalogue made it all too easy to run away in mouse-like timidity for the shelter of more readily accessible material. At the very least, there seemed to be two clear starting points and my intention was to begin with Together, then Fucking Amal, before plunging into the more taxing waters of his divisive post-2000 works. Before I got round to this, however, Moodysson released a new film which went back to the more accessible approach of his earlier work and when the chance arose to review that film, We Are The Best!, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to dip a toe into Moodysson’s world.
Based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, the director’s wife, We Are The Best! is a small, loving and deeply effective look at adolescence from the point of view of three outsiders with differing levels of rebellious spirit who are brought together when they decide to form an all-girl punk band. Set in 1982, the film resists the cheap pop culture referencing nostalgia of The Wedding Singer, presenting instead an authentic and subtle recreation of an era just after the first wave of punk had caused a stir. Although it follows an accessible narrative pattern, We Are The Best! does not offer any flourishes or unlikely plot twists. This isn’t School of Rock (which, for the record, I loved!) but rather a series of small instances which present a realistic representation of the enthralling jumble of early teen rebellion. So when Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) start their band with no musical ability whatsoever, we don’t see them progress much further in terms of talent. The myth of punk is that anyone could pick up an instrument and start a band, but there clearly needs to be some foundation of musical ability there. This comes in the form of Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a shy Christian girl who is invited to join the band based on her guitar skills, although the acoustic style of her initial playing is somewhat at odds with their punk vision.
The film builds to a climax of sorts with a debut public performance but the result is not what many will expect, although it does make for a suitably forceful big finish. But the spirit of We Are The Best! is most accurately captured by the sequence that plays under the closing credits, which depicts a madcap, pointlessly anarchistic prank played by the girls with the energetic verve that runs through the whole film. An anticlimactic final gag is also in keeping with the low key fun atmosphere.
Despite its light-heartedness, We Are The Best! is filled with accurate observations about the experience of being an outsider at school and the invigorating thrill of embracing that status in the face of persistent criticism and ostracism. The film doesn’t over-romanticise this state of being, as so many self-consciously quirky David and Goliath indies have been wont to do, but rather charts the ups and downs of it, ultimately showing some level of escapism for Hedvig in particular. The performances of the three main girls are all great. Mira Grosin’s Klara may be the standout, though she clearly has the most colourful part to work with. Her boisterous rebelliousness and decisiveness drives the others forward but she also seems overly inspired by an empty nihilism and often slips into the sort of bigotry that she hates in others. Mira Barkhammar as the Bunter-ish Bobo provides the ideal foil for Klara, with a more level-headed approach to life but an equally rebellious spirit, if witnessed in a more measured degree. Liv LeMoyne’s Hedvig, meanwhile, is the film’s most complex and enigmatic character. Quite unlike the other two girls and regularly pilloried by Klara for her religious faith, Hedvig comes out of her shell in a small way by accepting the friendship of her sometimes overbearing bandmates. By the film’s end she is gaining confidence and we even witness her own small acts of inadvertent rebellion, but the question remains as to whether her newfound happiness is as forced upon her as her Christianity is by her mother. In the one scene where we meet Hedvig’s mother, she comes across as an intelligent and reasonable woman who attempts to use Klara and Bobo’s preconceptions of her religion to illustrate the wrongdoing in their own behaviour. However, we see this scene in a different light when we later witness Hedvig’s own reaction to it and realise that her own feelings have been completely bypassed once again, in favour of what others feel she should believe.
The triumph of We Are The Best! is that it manages to slip in all these questions and thinking-points without the viewer realising. It is only when thinking back over the film that they come to mind, since the experience of watching it is so immersive and enjoyable. Arguably the film’s only stumble is in a predictable passage in which Klara and Bobo fall out over a boy. Although it is in keeping with the film’s realism to include such a passage (since even teenage punks have hormones) and the predictability with which it plays out does accurately mirror the majority of abortive teen romances, it is a distracting and unnecessary plotline that I would have liked to see excluded in favour of more about the band or even at the expense of a shorter runtime. This is ultimately a small complaint though and the film never becomes boring during these scenes, merely more obvious than it is elsewhere. The climax, which prominently features the film’s funniest characters in the shape of two youth counsellors who worship the local rock band, gets things back on track nicely and leaves us with a great sense of the film as that thrilling credit-sequence rolls. We Are The Best! has definitely whetted my appetite for more Moodysson and has set my expectations high.
We Are The Best is released on DVD by Metrodome on 28th July 2014