The great charm of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! — an adaptation of his wife Coco’s quasi-autobiographical graphic novel — lies in its total lack of pretension and adult editorializing. It is very simply a look in on some 13-year-old Swedish girls being … well, 13-year-old Swedish girls. The difference is that the film is set in 1982, and the girls decide to form a punk rock band — mindless of the fact that they can’t play music, and everybody insists that punk is dead. Actually, they are probably more goaded into this possibly ill-advised act by those very facts than anything, because our two main characters, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), are nothing if not contentious. In fact, it’s open to question, at least at first, whether they even want to form this band so much as they want to take the youth center rehearsal hall away from a group of headbangers whose music annoys them. Bobo and Klara are, after all, 13. Thinking things through is not their strong suit.
What makes this unassuming Swedish import work is that it presents its characters without trying to explain them, and, as a result, they explain themselves. Unlike so many American films that try to depict youth, the girls in We Are the Best! actually have interests, and they don’t just float along. But the bigger secret here is the casual way the film depicts the manner in which what is largely a passing fancy can grow into a life-changing obsession. The idea of forming a punk band appeals to their sense of being outsiders — and because it doesn’t seem to require much musicianship — but it only becomes important because … well, that’s the way things happen in early adolescence. It’s also the way youthful friendships work.
It doesn’t take Bobo and Klara long to realize their defiant “song,” “Hate the Sport” (mostly an attack on the school coach), is going to require more musical ability than they can manage. The problem is where to find the requisite help. They find this in the most unlikely place: A guitar-playing Jesus freak with long, blonde hair named Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne). Her appearance and her Christianity are the complete opposite of the girls, but she, too, is an outcast, which is a plus, and she can actually play music, which is an even bigger plus. Besides, it might be fun to corrupt her — or at least shock her. It’s at best a friendship of expedience, but expedience gives way to something more. This gives We Are the Best! a pretty strong claim on understanding youth in a way few films have.
There’s not much story here. It’s merely the three girls creating what in their mind is “the greatest rock band in the world” — and learning how to be themselves, to get along with each other (even when it means compromise) and how to take on the world. There are fights, awkward detours into the world of boys, life lessons (that don’t beat us over the head) and more. It’s a shaggy, slightly shambling affair that’s directed by Moodysson with a kind of 1960s looseness that’s both exuberant and appealing. Best of all, it all feels true and real — without becoming drab or angry. Its appeal may be greater than its last value, but it affords at least a moment of the complexity and joy of being 13, and that’s no small thing. Not Rated, but contains language and adult themes.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas.