Warm, joyous, and excellent, Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! is an honest and refreshing celebration of young girls’ friendship, with a few playful punk punches thrown in.
I want to snuggle with this movie. Hug it. Smile and laugh with it. Share a root beer with it. This is a movie that is deeply refreshing and enjoyable in the way too few films are. It’s not merely entertaining. It’s satisfying. I felt enriched and happy after seeing Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, based on the comic book by his wife Coco. Here is a film about children that is not pandering, nostalgic, or sentimental. It’s a film about how 12-year-olds actually relate to the world and to each other, i.e. kind of like jerks, but too tactless to be anything but honest about what they feel they need. It’s a film that takes a look at that fragile bridge between childhood play and adolescent grumpiness without a whiff of cynicism, or self-involved indulgence. It’s one of the best films of the year.
Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) is a shy, tomboyish outsider at her Swedish middle school in 1982. Her mother is a ditzy and inattentive single mom who spends more time with her boyfriends and conquests than with her daughter. Bobo’s only escape is into local punk rock, which she listens to in her bedroom at night. She seems to be just discovering teen angst. Bobo’s best friend is louder and much more spirited Klara (Mira Grosin) who openly dictates what the two of them are going to do, and has already defiantly cut her hair into a mohawk. The bulk of the film is devoted to their time together, throwing leaves at one anther after school, hanging out at their older siblings’ parties, and sulking after being insulted by the older boys. They have limited access to booze, but they have to sneak it away from older teens. They play like they know about sex, but infidelity for these girls still involves something as innocent as a boy putting his arm around you.
What other recourse do these young girls have but to form their own punk band? Despite not owning any instruments and having no talent for playing, the girls write a song about how much they hate gym class, and become determined to display it. They eventually have to recruit a third friend named Hedvig (Liv Lemoyne), who is a year older, taller, blonder, calmer, more mature, and, gasp, a Christian. Hedvig is an outsider to this group, and doesn’t necessarily “get” them, but their common love for music – along with Hedvig’s general calm acceptance – causes the girls to form a casual bond. Oh sure, they bicker, but they get along.
But this film is not about the punk band (which is, incidentally, never named), or even necessarily the punk ethos (other than perhaps to illustrate that these girls show nothing but crackling potential for awesomeness). This is about the power dynamics between the girls. Bobo is always the subservient one to Klara, a situation that neither would dare question. The introduction of an ambition and of a new friend changes the dynamic, and has the girls asking how much they like each other. And what happens when they hang out with boys? Who will get the most hugs from the “correct” local punk singer?
These girls are outsiders, would-be criminals, and would-be rebels. They have something to back up their rebel status: the adults in this film are pretty uniformly terrible. But the girls are too young to really know what to do with the punk lifestyle. They just know they don’t want the pink spandex and mainstream pop that their peers are involved in. In many ways, We Are the Best! resembles the work of children’s author Daniel Pinkwater. The heroes are not being overseen by adults, but seem to be perfectly okay exploring the world and discovering their own scene for themselves.
There is something ineffably innocent about these girls’ lives, which is a great relief after some of Moodysson’s last films. In Lilya 4-Ever, for instance, he told the story of an equally spirited young girl who is eventually sold into prostitution. It’s a good film, but it’s most certainly a bit of a wallow. In We Are the Best!, I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop; an accident would cause a grievous injury, or someone would be assaulted. Much to my delight, the film remains pleasantly simmering in the joy and playfulness and dark moments of their friendship. These are girls on the cusp of adolescence, and We Are the Best! chooses to focus on that age’s potential, joy, and interpersonal drama.