Screenwriters, movie studios and other industry forces that name films should be wary of titles with superlatives, since they can turn into hyperbole if the quality is not up to par. For instance, do not name your CGI extravaganza Oz: the Great and Powerful, if its wimpiest quality is the actor playing that titular character. Furthermore, be careful of updating a franchise by adding the word “Amazing” before Spider-Man if it will not ring true upon release.
Swedish director Lukas Moodysson took a risk by naming his latest shot of energy We Are the Best! Though the film will, unfortunately, not top my list of 2014’s greatest films, it is too infectiously joyous and terrifically acted to not feel like a self-proclaimed winner.
Based on a quasi-autobiographical graphic novel by the director’s wife, Coco, We Are the Best! focuses on two best friends, the withdrawn Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and the stubborn, spunky Klara (Mira Grosin). Bobo and Klara are seventh grade students in Stockholm during the early 1980s who are repulsed by late-era disco and the new wave. They decry wearing make-up like the other girls in their class, while their hair is cut so short that they could almost pass for boys. The girlfriends would rather listen to heavy, raucous punk anthems that rally against authority and discuss the potential of a nuclear meltdown than waste their hours on make-up and shopping.
One afternoon, Bobo and Klara decide to get back at some older boys who are rehearsing in a studio. They quickly form a punk duo as a half-joke, before going into the studio and hitting the instruments maniacally, without any sense of rhythm or order. However, the freedom of music delights the friends and bonds them even closer. When a gym teacher punishes Bobo for her lack of interest in plating sports a few days later, the girls pen an anti-basketball protest song, “Hate the Sport.” The lyrics are a fuse of blunt power and childish silliness, performed crudely but full of delightful non-sequitur verses.
The friends soon recruit a third member into their group, a pale girl with actual guitar-playing prowess named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne). Klara is stunned at Hedvig’s devout Christian life, and in one of the film’s funniest scenes, tries to convert her to disbelieve by playing her a punk song called “Hanging God.” (“It’s because He’s a fascist,” Karla explains to Hedvig of the song’s incendiary title.) Hedvig, the musical prodigy in this new trio, ignores her new friend’s atheism and decides to teach her animated amateur band-mates some musical foundations so that they can all stay on the beat, together.
We Are The Best! is an honest and emotionally complex look at girls on the cusp of adulthood. The characters are old enough to feel lust and jealousy, but young enough to shrug these problems off their back and continue jumping on couches and acting playfully. Moodysson’s film is an episodic journey of the friends as they explore the joy and anger of older adolescence, from flirting with boys to sipping alcoholic drinks. The writer/director balances these more serious pubescent discoveries with the rambunctious flair of what it feels like to be a loose, spirited kid. Moodysson does not forget that the characters are children, who have a knack to dive into sugar-high silliness, as well as moments of hypersensitivity. While Bobo does not flinch to the heavy lyrics of punk music, when she gets a small cut in one scene, the thrashing drummer hyperventilates in fear.
What stands out most about this film is some truly extraordinary debut performances, full of verve and vulnerability. Barkhammar and Grosin have an indestructible chemistry, behaving only as best friends could. The former gives a moving portrayal as a sullen wannabe rocker who has to deal with her more popular, attractive best friend. “In elementary school, you were invited to parties that I wasn’t,” Bobo reveals to Klara in a tender moment. Meanwhile, LeMoyne is just as good, capable of an enormous range. A doppelganger for a young Léa Seydoux, the actor shows enormous control in a scene where Klara cuts her character’s hair so that it is short and spiky. As Hedvig glimpses in the mirror, LeMoyne projects flashes of toughness and anxiety, both proud and a little ashamed of this newfound freedom.
All three young actors are strikingly good and infectiously enthusiastic. In the scenes where Bobo, Klara and Hedvig prance around, unleashing havoc on their instruments and trying to con passersby into giving them money, the actors are magnificently controlled lunacy. There is so much excitement in the frame but the performances still come off as natural, to the extent that the moments feel spontaneous, like it is hard to accept that there could be a camera and crew present in the same room as the young rebels.
The girls captivate our attention to the extent that we hardly notice just how choppy some of the storytelling is. We Are the Best! is largely episodic, focusing on events or plot threads for a little bit before abandoning them for the next incident. Near the film’s start, there are a few scenes with Bobo’s flirtatious mother ending a relationship and looking for a male partner, while she avoids any connection with her daughter. A few scenes later, the 13-year-old’s father comes to visit. While these early moments indicate that Bobo’s parents are an integral part of her character’s development, the mom and dad do not appear for much of the rest of the film. Moodysson has energy and wit to spare, but he is also stylistically loose. He could have used a Hedvig to discipline the storytelling in the editing room.
The storytelling is scattered, full of odds and sods that never quite harmonize into a compelling package. Just like its young girl power protagonists, the film moves to the beat of its own drum. Nevertheless, the performances are so natural and fresh and the chemistry between the three young rebels so electric that We Are the Best! is too dynamic a coming-of-age story to resist.
We Are the Best! is an infectiously funny coming-of-age story, led by three invigorating, nuanced performances from its young cast.