If Yasujiro Ozu—the Japanese filmmaker who excelled at telling stories about the lives of young children—lived long enough to turn his camera on punk rock, the result might look something like Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's warm portrait of middle school angst "We are the Best!" Despite the unruly music at its center, the filmmaker has crafted a uniformly gentle ode to growing up.
Adapting the graphic novel by his wife Coco, Moodysson presents an energetic look at three young women in early eighties Stockholm finding catharsis from their mundane lives through the riotous energy of the music, even as many around them roll their eyes. If—as one character asserts early on—punk has already died by the time they discover it, their youthful investment manages to resurrect its spirit.
Unlike many dramatizations of the punk scene and its reverberations, "We are the Best!" roots its subject in its adorable young protagonists, who start the movie with the ultra-trim hairdos to suit the subculture but no knowledge of how to play their instruments. So Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) eventually recruit pampered Christian classmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) to bring her classically trained musical ability to their burgeoning rock group. Their ensuing adventures are never high risk, but Moodyson explores their world so well that it's easy to feel swept up in their experiences.
With her androgynous look and curious expression, Barkhammar plays the ultimate figure of adolescent confusion, with her character's dreams of anarchic behavior always second-fiddle to the considerably spunkier Clara. Together the pair have a remarkably unique screen presence, at first playing dress-up as the adult rebels they admire and gradually becoming legitimate bite-sized version of just that. LeMoyne, who undergoes the most radical physical changes over the course of the movie, splits the difference between the two friends who bring her into the fold: Neither aggressive nor buttoned up, she only rebels against her puritanical mother once her friends convince her to cut her flowing blond hair and match their look. Punk rock is her salvation, too—she just doesn't realize it until the option is forced upon her.
Mostly, though, "We are the Best!" focuses on the evolving chemistry between Bobo and Klara, as they bob their heads to screeching, distorted tracks in their bedrooms and cope with various discontented adults. Swedish punk bands KSMB and Ebba Gron burst from their stereos like the movie's rambunctious Greek chorus, their anti-establishment lyrics allowing the girls to crystallize their anger even as they lack a cogent reason to complain. Overall, their conundrums are pretty minor, as they mainly involve Klara's desire to invade the young adult world: Her drunken excursion at a teen party, which naturally culminates with vomit on an LP, strikes an uneasy chord between embarrassment and physical comedy. "We are the Best!" is filled with such enjoyable moments; even a twist involving the two girls' mutual attraction to a punk classmate their own age has a sweet, innocuous quality that never overstates the drama.
As the trio masters their instruments—at least, in accordance with the loose expectations of the musical genre—and bond with an older, adult group, "We are the Best!" builds to a climactic performance that, once it arrives, is beside the point. The characters, appearing in every scene and never lacking enthusiasm for punk's liberating powers, provide a constant thematic focus.
With its skillful navigation of moods, "We are the Best!" marks something of a bounceback for director Moodysson ("Fucking Amal," "Together") after the disappointment of his last feature, "Mammoth." With a shaky-cam technique that largely relies on closeups of the girls' faces, he manages to fully inhabit their lives. As a result, "We are the Best!" is less a period piece about the history punk rock than its capacity to address on the frustrations of youth. When arguing that punk has the upper hand on disco, Bobo argues that with punk, "you have to use your brain." Moodysson's freewheeling style manages to capture just that. Setting aside its specifics, "We are the Best!" is predominantly about the cultivation of individuality. By the time they arrive at the titular chant in the movie's closing moments, we're apt to believe them.
Magnolia Pictures releases "We are the Best" in New York and Los Angeles this Friday and will expand to more cities nationwide in June.