I don’t think I’ve ever been a young, preteen, Swedish girl trying to form a punk band in the early ’80s, but if I was I’d hope to have even half the strength, optimism, and attitude as Bobo, Klara and Hedvig. Maybe twice the raw musical talent too, but that’s neither here nor there.
The three girls form a tight friendship over their shared interest in hairstyles, punk music lyrics and remaining true to themselves in a sea of disco-loving, brightly dressed automatons. Two members of the trio have never even held an instrument before, but their infectious determination drives them forward and helps them navigate the all too recognizable perils of being a twelve to fourteen year old.
If there’s a more joyous and joyful movie this year than Sweden’s We Are the Best! not only will I be one ecstatic movie-lover, but I’ll also eat my hat. Well, a hat-shaped food item anyway as I don’t own a hat. The point is Lukas Moodysson’s latest film is an absolute pleasure to watch and experience, a rare treat that fully immerses you in a world that’s foreign yet familiar with its story of the time in our lives when we still believed anything and everything was possible.
Stockholm, Sweden in 1982 is a city fully caught up in the disco swing, but Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) refuses to get onboard that particular bandwagon. Her wardrobe, John Lennon-ish glasses and self-inflicted haircut mark her as an androgynous-looking young girl, and she’s pretty okay with that. Mostly. She wishes her hair looked as cool as her best friend Klara’s (Mira Grosin), even if the other girls in class are disgusted at the soap she uses to keep the mohawk up. The two spend their days together hanging out, poking fun at their respective families and dealing with cruel jabs at their (supposed) lack of feminine beauty.
Encouraged by their own rambunctious attitude to form a band at the local youth center, the two quickly realize they have no clue what they’re doing. The solution comes in the form of Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne, looking like a young Léa Seydoux), a shy, friendless girl one grade ahead of them whose strong Christian beliefs are outweighed by her talent with a guitar. They invite her in, give her a haircut and soon the trio is on their way to their first public performance.
Moodysson’s film, based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel, resembles the equally lovely Linda Linda Linda in its tale of young girls/women bonding and overcoming obstacles in an effort to express themselves musically, but the interest and execution is far less narrative-driven here. There’s a naturalistic feel to the film and its performances that ease viewers in by making us flies on the dirty and drab walls of early ’80s Sweden. The girls go about their lives together revealing both the mundane and special moments as the adults orbit around them as ordinary disappointments, unexpected supporters or befuddled bystanders.
As they’re wont to do, boys eventually threaten to muck up the girls’ friendship as attractions form with members of a locally celebrated boys band. A different film would make something far more dramatic of this, possibly giving it weight well beyond what’s necessary, but here it’s given the exact priority it deserves. Similarly, jokes and conversations about Hedvig’s religious faith are given humorous respect here without becoming an unnecessary subplot. The focus is the girls’ friendship and irrepressible belief in themselves, and it’s made evident on the actresses’ faces again and again.
The film captures the fun and the frustrations of growing up and moves effortlessly from laughter to heartbreak and back again, from a giggle-filled jam session to a moment of honest pain as Bobo takes stock of herself in the mirror. It’s easy to see ourselves in the three girls regardless of where we fall on the xx/xy factor or whether or not we’ve ever held an instrument, as their conversations and behaviors are familiar to anyone who’s ever been that age. Moodysson’s magic act is in recreating that time capsule without artificiality, judgement or melodrama.
Watching We Are the Best! is a genuinely positive experience, one that leaves you smiling inside and out even days later as you think back not only on scenes from the film but also to memories of your own life and friends from that magical time of your life. Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me said it best – “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Turns out that sentiment is the same the world over.
The Upside: A mesmerizing delight from beginning to end; all three girls give natural-feeling, fantastically believable performances; humor and drama both remain grounded; some unexpected but highly appreciated turns
The Downside: “Hate the Sport” is neither a good nor catchy song; some viewers may not appreciate the slightly meandering feel
On the Side: Writer/director Lukas Moodysson published a book of poetry when he was nineteen. Slacker.