Ah, punk rock.
Punk is inarguably the music of the young, though the adults who grew up with it can still bring their youth back by throwing on a Minor Threat or Youth Brigade record and jumping around their apartment. Any number of those adults knows the feeling: Maybe the record player has gone crusty with disuse, but one chance playing of The Dead Kennedys at a dive bar and a lot of those old angsty, rebellious feelings can come back, along with the rose-tinted memories of good times passed. That feeling describes what seeing Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! is like.
The characters are so charming, though, that one need not have had a punk rock past to enjoy the film. No, the feelings of adolescent alienation should be relatable for anyone who has ever had the challenge of going through the teen years. Like punk rock itself (here are three chords, now go start a band), the plot is kept wire-thin in its simplicity, but also like punk rock, the emotions behind it are sincere and raw. Moodysson makes some very keen choices for his film.
First of all, most films that deal with adolescence are set in high school, but here we have much younger 13-year-olds as the main characters. Most people can attest that the true pain of adolescence starts in middle school, rather than high school, not to mention that’s when many kids first try to forge their identities from things like music. Second, the main characters are young girls who, with their short, punkish haircuts and secondhand clothes, struggle as outsiders enduring the snickers and taunts of their peers. It is the early ’80s and the phenomenon of punk rock has outlived its mainstream days, living on only in the hearts of a lonely few.
The girls are Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), and they spend a lot of their time like any 13-year-olds do, listening to music or talking on the phone with each other complaining about school and their ridiculous families. One day, they decide to start a band, mostly to irritate the rude metalhead band that shares their youth center (one of the punkest reasons ever to start a band), and they start by writing a song bemoaning people’s love of sports over political concerns (also totally punk).
They have absolutely zero musical experience, so enter Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a slightly older 8th-grade girl who also endures life as an outsider for her religious views. She sure can play guitar, though, so they recruit her, punk her up, and spend a lot of time just being kids. All of the adult characters around them are seen through their point of view and look preposterous for it. Sometimes it is funny, sometimes a little sad, but always it is engaging and somewhat familiar.
A few things happen that could give this film what some would call a plot, but they aren’t important. We Are the Best! manages to portray the complex experience of early adolescence with sensitivity and sincerity, and without condescension at what the characters are feeling. It may feel a bit aloof to some people, but that seeming lack of direction mirrors the characters, and is done with intention, rather than authorial carelessness. At its core, We Are the Best! returns us to days of hanging out in friend’s basements, blasting the stereo, getting in trouble, and sneering at the world. Even when times get tough, you can meet them head on with your fist in the air. When the three girls in the movie shout the film’s title, you know what they are feeling. Plus, there is some great Swedish punk rock in there.
We Are the Best opens on Friday, June 13 at the Ken Cinema. Be there!