Sometimes you don’t realize what you’ve been missing until it comes along, and until Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are The Best!” (exclamation mark totally earned!) we didn’t realize we’d been missing a female-fronted punk music and puberty story set in early ‘80s Stockholm. The film is a breath of fresh air—there is a lovely awkwardness to the coming-of-age tale that makes it feel almost like an enthusiastic early effort from a talented neophyte as opposed to the eighth feature from an established, albeit arthouse, director. But Moodysson, never the most structured or formalist of directors, doesn’t overthink the simplicity of the premise and seems to have been energized by the subject matter and by the exuberant young cast. And this joyful, rejuvenating effect works its way into the very fibers of the film and radiates out from it, so that viewers may emerge feeling a decade or two younger too. But maybe most impressive is how Moodysson, who has worked in the coming-of-age genre before to good effect (“Fucking Amal”), finds the perfect distance from which to relate the story: we’re neither so embroiled in the roiling emotions of tweenagerdom that proceedings become melodramatic, nor are we at such an ironic remove that we’re ever talking down or condescending to the engaging central trio. The unpatronizing way their growing pains are portrayed, while not ever losing a sense of perspective and humor is a key element of what makes the film so beguiling: not only do we emerge loving this trio of 13-year-old girls, they earn our fervent respect too.
Boyish-looking, bespectacled Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and outgoing, mohawked Klara (Mira Grosin) are best friends, and, even though Bobo’s hair won’t take the styling like Klara’s, they’re both into punk, despite the scorn of the disco-hip kids around them. Like many a punk act band before and since, they ignore the fact that neither can play an instrument and galvanized by a song improvised during gym class (the ludicrously catchy “Hate the Sport”) decide to form a band, using the local youth center’s equipment. But when their shortcomings become apparent they decide maybe they do need recruit someone who does actually know a chord or two (or indeed, what a chord is) and target Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), the straitlaced child of strict religious parents who is jeered at during a school concert for her self-serious classical guitar stylings. And it’s Hedwig, despite the relatively supporting nature of her role, who will undergo the most dramatic and satisfying arc of change, while in center stage, Bobo and Klara continue to bicker and badger their way through a series of misadventures, notably with a local all-boy punk band who become the rather vacant objects of their affection.
Pitching the story at this age, slightly younger than the average angsty teen film is a crucial decision, allowing it to play out with an unforced edge of innocence, at that brief pre-sexualized juncture when these kids are beginning to form for themselves an idea of who they’re going to be as autonomous adults, but before the crashing wave of hormonal puberty muddies everything. So even the one major conflict that arises between Bobo and Klara, when they both decide they like the same boy, is far less important of itself than in the context of their friendship, which proves robust enough to heal itself on the train ride home, with nothing more than an infectious, impossible-not-to-return reconciling grin and Hedwig’s level-headed help. Without too much “I didn’t ask to be born!” adolescent navel-gazing going on, the film is free instead to focus on how the girls interrelate and how they find in each other a source of strength and support and individualism and all good things; it’s not often we see female friendships, especially juvenile ones, portrayed so positively.
Of course, that could only possibly work if the chemistry is there onscreen, but these three young actors bring such an unforced camaraderie that it really often feels like we’re peeking in at real lives. And they’re so individually characterized and with such specific, minute insight that at times we felt a real pang of identification, (in fact during that scene on the rooftop when Klara scores with the boy Bobo had had the connection with, this writer confesses it felt more like a recollection of a comically similar incident from my own adolescence). And so the film is such a breezy, easy, believable watch that its gentle subversion can almost go unnoticed: where there’ve been a thousand coming-of-age films, we can’t think of many that manage the uncanny trick of making three tweens both so relatable and so strangely aspirational. In fact, we can’t think of many films that come from the novel point of view that it was ever cool to be a prepubescent girl, but Bobo, Klara and Hedwig are indeed the coolest.
Moodysson achieves all this, as well as an excellent, understated sense of time and place, without ever resorting to overt plot manipulation or contrivance. And that organic feel does come at the cost of some urgency, as the film strings incidents together (finding a bag full of wool on the street; getting drunk at a party; developing a crush on a friend’s brother; sparring with a rival band; clashing with the adults and parents who occupy pretty much a different plane of existence) like beads on a chain, without necessarily building up a great deal of internal momentum. In fact, as much as we were enjoying spending time with these characters, we did start to wonder if, with its loose episodic structure it would be able to stick its landing, or if it would trail off indeterminately, less bang than whimper. We needn’t have worried, however as its closing moments, while never compromising the film’s internal realism, actually mark out one of the sweetest, strongest and most satisfyingly earned endings we’ve seen in a while. Fittingly for such an anthemic portrait of youthful friendship, it’s a uniquely affecting fuck-yeah of a bonding moment between our heroines which sent us grinning into the credits, as, in a shitty suburban youth center hall on the outskirts of Stockholm three white, middle-class 13-year-old Swedish girls become just about the punkest thing we’ve ever seen. [B+]