Early on in Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, four young girls sit at a table doing homework. Two of them have long hairstyles and are dressed in generically feminine colors, while to their left are Klara (Mira Grosin) and Bobo (Mira Barkhammer), a more boyishly styled pair. Confronted with Klara’s roguish mohawk and Bobo’s shaggy, self-inflicted spikes, the first two start needling their classmates: “Punk’s dead, didn’t you know that?”
It’s 1982, and the punk movement is indeed winding down in Sweden. But We Are the Best! really isn’t about whether or not punk is dead, or even about resurrecting specific punk ideals. In response to this jab, Klara and Bobo are annoyed, but dismiss it pretty neatly — Klara in particular is more concerned about the dangers of nuclear energy than debating popular culture. And that’s why this film is such a sweet, magnanimous coming-of-age tale: though it gives voice to the teenage characters’ narrow and sometimes frivolous passions, it never makes them a stand-in for any larger agenda.
The story follows Klara, Bobo, and a new friend named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), who they corral for her guitar-playing ability, in their quest to start a band. The girls model some of their tastes after their heroes, and the film includes a fair amount of music from real-life Swedish punk bands like Ebba Grön and KSMB. But their ideas are their own, and their battles appropriately small in scale: their magnum opus, a slowly perfected and irresistibly catchy song (it ends up being the only one in their repertoire) called “Hate the Sport,” takes aim at the mindlessness of organized sports, but is really a diatribe against the girls’ overly militant gym teacher, who makes Bobo run laps when she passes the ball to the opposite team.
We Are the Best! is adapted from a graphic novel written by Moodysson’s wife Coco based on her own experiences (in a recent Q&A at BAMcinematek, Moodysson said that he changed the main character’s name from Coco to Bobo so the film wouldn’t feel so “incestuous.”) It’s a notably happier film than most of Moodysson’s past work, which includes the grim Lilya 4-Ever, but it once again showcases his way with young actors and his sensitivity to the pangs and delights of adolescence. All three leads are fantastic, embodying the girls’ differing approaches to fitting in, dealing with family, and the knotty topics of politics and religion — Klara is a brash atheist, while Hedvig is soft-spoken and privately spiritual. A band is the perfect metaphor for the increasing symbiosis of their friendship, as they learn to respect their differences and stand together through encounters with parents, rival bands, and the inevitable attentions of boys.
Actually, Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig are so entertaining that Moodysson’s hand feels nearly invisible — the film simply rushes by on the heels of its protagonists. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine We Are the Best! without Moodysson’s particular sense of humor, which is both respectful and playful towards ideas of loyalty, musicianship, and fandom. Towards the end, we get to see Hedvig calmly mediate a conflict between Bobo and Klara; soon after, the band forms a united front against a hostile audience whose ire is undeterred by the fact that they’re yelling at three 13-year-old girls. It’s a thrilling and hilarious culmination to an uncommonly open-hearted film.