I first encountered Swedish director Lukas Moodysson in a review by one of my favorite critics, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker. Lane opened his review of Moodysson’s second film Together with: “Just when I was starting to despair of ever finding a decent movie about life in a Swedish hippie colony in the mid-nineteen-seventies, along comes a perfect example.” For me at 15 this was the zenith of film criticism. I hung the quote on my wall and frequently referenced it, but it wasn’t until I was 20 when my Swedish roommate gave me Together for my birthday that I actually saw the film.
Together displays two of Moodysson’s sharpest skills: a gift for capturing the look and feel of earlier eras, and the ability to get startlingly good performances from child actors, but it is in his delightful 2013 film We Are the Best! that these strengths get the showcase they truly deserve. Based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson (who also happens to be Lukas Moodysson’s wife) We Are the Best! follows the ups and downs of three 13 year-old girls as they start a punk band in 1982 Stockholm.
Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are best friends with strong opinions, self-inflicted haircuts and no musical talent, who form a band simply because they’re sick of hearing the local hair metal band, Iron Fist, practicing at their community center. After writing their first and only song, “Hate the Sport” (dedicated to their gym teacher, sample line: “Your team is winning, Oil Companies are sinning. Hate the sport, hate the sport!”), they enlist the help of Hedvig, a quiet classical guitarist a year older than them, hoping she can teach them how to play and they can teach her the tenets of punk rock rebellion. It is a loving ode to friendship and adolescence in all its messy obsessive glory and is all the more authentic for being inspired by Coco Moodysson’s own childhood experiences.
So often world of rock bands is viewed as a masculine realm, the occasional female singer is allowed, but otherwise girls and women are fans, groupies, and killjoy girlfriends. This idea has wormed its way so deeply into the greater consciousness that one of the few negative reviews of We Are the Best! condescendingly lectured: “As anyone familiar with punk during its late-’70s/early-’80s heyday will recall, its musicians were overwhelmingly males in their late teens and early 20s.” (Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com). I would like to point out that anyone familiar with 13 year-old girls will know that their obsessions rarely fall into the stereotypes that the world makes for them. This is part of the joy of We Are the Best! these three girls are allowed to be real and individual. In the words of Coco Moodysson: “I wanted audiences to really feel how it feels when you go into the rehearsal room for the first time, put your amplifier on, and discover chords for the first time. […] it can inspire girls to be loud and ugly and scream and take control over their lives and to do something!” (source)
Lukas Moodysson is a brilliant director, most of his films are profoundly human, and the
relationships in them are complex and generous, but not all his films are accessible or easy to watch, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that of his six feature films the three currently available on Netflix represent by far the gentler more optimistic half of his oeuvre. They include the sweet high school romance of his first film Show Me Love, a film so lovely, lived-in and genuine that it isn’t until it’s over that you realize that it is a happy twist on Romeo and Juliet, and the unconventional family drama of Together, but We Are the Best! is his lightest most nimble film, filled with youthful exuberance in a messy world, and in the end, perhaps because of that, it really is the best.
“We Are the Best! captures the screw-loose joy of youth with consummate ease and grace.” – Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
“There is hardly a shortage of movies about rock ’n’ roll, but there are few as perfect — which is to say as ragged, as silly, as touching or as true — as We Are the Best!.” A.O. Scott, NYTimes