When you go to the theaters this summer, you could seek heroes that go flying about in tights and capes straight from the pages of DC and Marvel comics, saving the world from bad guys that look a lot like they do. You could watch the planet get ripped apart by Transformers or Japanese monsters, run from CGI apes, chortle at comic cops, or weep while beautiful people battle life-threatening diseases.
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Producer: Lars Jönsson
Writer: Lukas Moodysson, Coco Moodysson (graphic novel)
Cinematographer: Ulf Brantås
Editor: Michal Leszczylowski
Cast: Mira Barkhammer, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne, Anna Rydgren, Charlie Falk, David Dencik, Ann-Sofie Rase, Jonathan Salomonsson, Mattias Wiberg
Premiere: August 31, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 30, 2014
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
But for my money, this summer’s heroes are a pair of thirteen-year-old girls who tentatively pick up a bass guitar and a pair of drum sticks, look at one another slyly, and then begin to wail out a song called “Hate the Sport”. Because when Stockholm teenagers Bobo and Klara begin to play the punk rock that will define their year, I’m betting that you’re witnessing feats that dwarf anything else you’ll find this year.
We Are The Best!, Lukas Moodysson’s astounding and uplifting little picture, captures, almost perfectly, what people do to survive their teenage years. Based on the graphic novel (sadly unpublished in America) by Coco Moodysson (the director’s wife), the movie opens in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1982. This is the era of synth-pop, leg warmers, neon yellow, pink, and green spandex, hair-metal bands and, most depressingly to our heroes, a dearth of punk music.
Bobo and Klara, played by Mira Barkhammer and Mira Grosin, respectively, won’t take this laying down. I take that back—early in the picture, they do indeed take this lying down, moping in their rooms, as we probably all have, stretched out on their beds beneath their many posters, barricaded against their kind parents and the world, and listening to their punk records. Now and again, they break from this to call one another and lament their bland existence to one another. But they live the punk lifestyle as best they can—Bobo cuts her own hair short, Klara sports a wicked Mohawk, and the two bum around home and at school, hanging out and feeling miserable, trying to confront their fellow classmates whenever they can in an attempt to make things better.
From the outside, everything looks great for these two kids. They have good homes, enough to eat, no one really hurting them. Moodysson is uninterested in bringing out the usual piñatas for his kids to whack—there’s no evil teachers, no cops, no hellish parents (not even dumbfounded moms and dads), no bullies, just people, all struggling to get by, but really not struggling too hard, as this is a pretty good life.
Bobo’s parents are divorced. her dad, a sweet but dull guy, visits every so often while her lonely mom has very nice men over once in awhile, though none manage to stay. Klara makes attempts at showing how awful her folks are, holding out the phone to Bobo to hear their little fights, but for the most part they are a family of five cramped in a small space, happy together if not a bit tired of one another. Her dad torments Klara with his clarinet, and Klara thinks her older brother is a jerk because he likes Joy Division.
Really, what sucks for these girls is that they’re thirteen, and thirteen is an awful age for any human being. Bobo and Klara are eager to rage against whatever machine is in their way, every single day, even if the machine isn’t anything more than a gym coach who wants the girls to play basketball.
Bored to tears with this life, hungry to do something, and fueled with just enough knowledge of the political world to know they should be angry about… something, Bobo and Klara end up at a local youth center after school, scheming about ways to make their nights more interesting. There, the girls are insulted by a flock of dopey teenage boys who play in a terrible rock band called Iron Fist. Looking to throw a wrench into the boys’ plans—and irritated by their music, which is loud and terrible—the girls discover that the boys, in their haste, forgot to sign up for the band practice room. So Bobo and Klara scribble their name onto the calendar at the same time. Rules are rules, according to the pair of dudes who run the center, the boys get kicked out, and then our heroes find themselves in possession of the center’s drum kit and an electric bass for an hour.
Seriously, isn’t this as revelatory as Peter Parker getting bit by a radioactive spider? Flailing away on the bass, Klara begins to growl into the mike, releasing her sweet venom against her gym teacher, and then on anyone who likes sports. Bobo does her best to keep up on the drums. And so we see the genesis of “Hate the Sport”, the one and only song we’ll be privy to from these girls (who never actually come up with a band name, either).
The casual accident that brings Bobo and Klara to begin playing is a truly beautiful and hilarious moment. The pair is so clumsy and yet so eager to get something to emerge from these alien instruments that you just want to grab an instrument yourself and begin shouting about the vast stupidity of tennis with them.
From there, the girls are hooked, as are we. Failing to get into the school talent contest (because they missed the deadline), Klara wants to give up and move on to something else, but Bobo presses on. And then a revelation—during the talent show, which is fraught with clumsy magic tricks and dancing to the Human League—they witness Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) playing classical guitar. Stunned at her expertise, and ignoring the fact she is devoutly Christian and a wallflower to boot, they confront her at lunch the next day and demand that she join the band.
Behold the power of punk. Hedvig, an outsider thanks to her devotion, is wary at first—and what young, sweatered, blonde-haired Christian girl wouldn’t balk at the fast-talking Klara and wide-eyed earnest Bobo? Ultimately, the appeal of playing guitar in a band, and Klara’s absolute insistence that she join, prove irresistible.
Now the band really ramps up—Hedvig brings just enough talent to the group to give them the power to turn “Hate the Sport” into a driving punk anthem. She helps Klara learn to actually play that damn bass, and wows everyone with her acoustic renditions of favorite Swedish punk classics.
We Are The Best! doesn’t have a very tight narrative, which is perfect for its examination of friendship and the strength of art to transform the utterly crushing banality of life as a thirteen-year-old. Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig are wrestling with their own friendly demons—each in the form of a well-meaning parent, and you can almost see the girls’ horror at the thought of actually becoming their parents… and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they would end up like their folks. (At the very least, We Are The Best! is a wonderful tonic for adults to recall their own teenage punk years and wish things hadn’t settled quite so predictably in their lives.)
Moodysson uses rich detail and coaxes solid performances to slowly reveal the distinct personality and drive of these three girls: Bobo staring in a mirror, wishing she were attractive; Klara endlessly perturbed by something, anything, everything, always with her dukes up, arguing with gym teachers, other students, the weary employees of a fast food joint (she wants some free French fries)—she’s the perfect personality to lead the band, or drive it apart; Hedvig slipping into a near-trance whenever she picks up her guitar, and it is her professionalism and seriousness, not to mention her disinterest in competing with these two for boys or attention (Hedvig really is the most mature and content of the three), that makes her the perfect foil for the other two.
Thankfully, We Are The Best! is not concerned with beating to death the usual teenage tropes, though it employs just enough of them to move the story forward. A scene where Bobo and Klara chop off Hedvig’s long blonde curls results in a tense moment with her Christian mom, who tries to make a deal with the girls to go to church to repent. Moodysson maneuvers it perfectly, never reducing mom to a cliché and keeping the girls’ integrity intact when they refuse. Bobo and Klara both fall for a teenage boy who leads his own punk band (and whose signature song, “Breshnev, Reagan, FUCK YOU!” is nearly as brilliant as “Hate the Sport”), but again, Moodysson treats these moments carefully, never overstating the drama, choosing instead to use these scenes to reveal character and a shared love of punk music. The boys are, in essence, the male equivalent of Bobo and Klara, and we see them not as jerks but teenagers trying desperately to understand and process the world.
Ultimately, when the opportunity comes for the two Stockholm youth center bands (including the aforementioned Iron Fist) to play for other kids in some Podunk town in Sweden, this doesn’t become a cheap contest or a need to perform some sort of Napoleon Dynamite-style hysterics on a stage—it’s something to strive for, the perfect crescendo to the work they’ve done. And Moodysson delivers, turning the show into the ideal punk moment, involving near riots, a mosh pit, and a big, friendly fuck you to the world. And when it’s all over and the band is basking in the glow of pissing off an entire town’s worth of kids, Klara, exhausted, says “We are the best!” It’s true—they are the best.
And by extension, so is the audience—you certainly leave the theater feeling that this movie is the best and maybe, just maybe, you too could form a punk band and be the best yourself. We Are The Best! isn’t just the story of a trio of teenagers who go on to become punk rock legends, it connects Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig to everyone watching the movie, girls and boys, women and men, anyone who has ever thought it would be totally awesome to be in a band.
Moodysson has stated that “I wanted to make a happy little movie that winked and glistened and told us that life isn’t entirely impossible.” But isn’t that the story of every heroic movie, that life isn’t entirely impossible? Ultimately, we don’t just want Spider-Man to win, we want to be Spider-Man, get bit by the spider that allows us to defy gravity and save the world.
So it is with We Are The Best! In Stockholm in 1982, three young women named Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig saved the world, not by scaling tall buildings or defying death or killing robots, but by picking up some drum sticks and a bass guitar. And the world should be forever grateful.