We Are the Best!: Venice Review
Three early-teen Stockholm girls form a punk band to thrash their way through outsider unease in Swedish writer-director Lukas Moodysson's latest.
Smells like Swedish teen spirit. The emotional vitality and warm-hearted view of adolescence that elevated Lukas Moodysson’s 1998 debut feature, Show Me Love, make a welcome return in We Are the Best! (Vi ar bast!) Based on a graphic novel by the director’s wife, this is a buoyant account of three awkward-age girls who form an impromptu punk band as an escape from exasperating parents, high school bitches and solitude. Specific to its 1982 Stockholm setting and yet thematically universal, the film is all the more disarming for its breezy unpretentiousness.
People keep telling 13-year-old friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) that punk is dead. The tacky spectacle of their blonde nemeses in candy-colored spandex doing a school talent show routine to the synthpop of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” would seem to confirm it.
For Moodysson’s purposes, however, the anti-establishment anarchy and rejection of mainstream culture that defined the punk movement are a perfect fit for the inchoate rebellion that grips kids in their early teens, even if the politicization of their unrest rarely runs deep. For the girls in We Are the Best! it’s also a misfit style statement that helps pave over their insecurities and allow them to assert identities that are still on the way to being fully formed.
Funny and frank in its observations, the film is a delightful snapshot of female friendship at that age, from the giddy highs to the melancholy funks, from the sustaining bonds to the jealousies and stinging betrayals.
Sporting a mohawk and a mouthful of attitude, Klara is the scrappiest and most confident of the bunch. Her tendency to automatically assume leadership is already showing signs of ruffling Bobo, the smarter, more serious of the two. Bobo’s wire-framed specs give her a persistent prepubescent Harry Potter look that makes the punky posturing harder for her to sell, even with help from hair product to spike up her boyish pixie cut.
The two form a band as a lark, partly to stick it to the obnoxious guys who dub themselves Iron Fist and monopolize the youth center rehearsal space with their maximum-volume din. One of the girls’ early improvised efforts is a hilarious anti-sports anthem that will appeal to anyone who ever hated gym class. However, that shapeless blast of garage-band noise has nothing on the blunt brilliance later on of a song by another band whose members the girls eye as potential boyfriends. Its refrain: “Brezhnev, Reagan. F*** off!”
While their ambitions remain too modest and their dedication too erratic to call this a let’s-form-a-band movie, Bobo and Klara soon concede that their lack of musicianship is a drawback. They spot a solution in Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a shy fledgling beauty who is an accomplished classical guitarist. Socially constrained by her family’s devout Christianity, she is as much an outsider as Bobo and Klara. And while she takes some persuading that their overtures of friendship are genuine, she opens up like a flower under their influence. Particularly after being bullied into letting them hack off her hair into an androgynous short crop.
There’s not a whole lot more in terms of story, but the unforced charm of this limber, infectiously chaotic movie is due in part to its looseness, not to mention the empathy and affection of Moodysson’s regard for his characters.
The closest thing to a plot-driver is a concert at a youth center in another town where the girls are invited to perform. But echoing the comic-strip frames of Coco Moodysson’s source material, titled Never Goodnight, it’s the accumulation of small vignettes that makes this so sweet and satisfying.
Poignant moments include Bobo crushing on Klara’s 16-year-old brother (Charlie Falk), who’s all but oblivious to her until she mortifyingly throws up on his record collection. Or her awkward attempts to make a move on another guy, Elis (Jonathan Salomonsson), which might be disloyal to Klara but shows Bobo’s impatience with playing second fiddle. The resulting spat adds texture to the late action. Moodysson is not interested in fabricating major epiphanies on the path to maturity, but there’s an exuberant sense of these girls’ joy as they make a racket and affirm their independence.
Adults are viewed from an irritated teen perspective, whether it’s Bobo’s self-absorbed divorced mother (Anna Rydgren) and her constant search for romance, Klara’s dorky, clarinet-playing dad (David Dencik), or Hedvig’s mother (Ann-Sofie Rase), who attempts to discipline the girls by imposing her beliefs upon them. But Moodysson’s light touch, as well as his affinity for the normal give and take of family life ensures that these secondary figures are presented without ridicule.
The three young leads turn in winning performances, creating nicely individualized characters and revealing a lot in moments of quiet sensitivity. Nimble camerawork, brisk editing, and production design that’s colorful but at the same time understated help wrap up the package, of course along with a raucous soundtrack selection of Scandi punk tunes.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons; also in Toronto festival)
Cast: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne, Johan Lijemark, Mattias Wiberg, Jonathan Salomonsson, Alvin Strollo, Anna Rydgren, Peter Eriksson, Charlie Falk, David Dencik, Lena Carlsson, Emrik Ekholm, Ann-Sofie Rase
Production company: Memfis Film, Film I Vast, Sveriges Television, Zentropa Entertainments 5
Director-screenwriter: Lukas Moodysson, based on the graphic novel “Never Goodnight” by Coco Moodysson
Producer: Lars Jonsson
Director of photography: Ulf Brantas
Production designers: Linda Janson, Paola Holmer
Editor: Michal Leszczylowski
Costume designer: Moa Li Lemhagen Schalin
No rating, 102 minutes.