Spend too much time in your local multiplex and you’re liable to forget that the world is made up of an almost infinite number of stories. Everyone has a unique perspective but few of those stories ever make it onto film. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! is a rare exception to this rule as it pulls us from the well-travelled cinematic path and into the headspace of three teenaged girls growing up in 1980s Sweden.
The film initially presents itself as a rather generic band movie in which a group of weird but lovable outcasts come together, face obstacles and work towards a cathartic public performance that somehow makes all the heartbreak seem worthwhile. However, while Moodysson pays lavish tribute to the Swedish punk scene and fills his film with some genuinely excellent music, it is quite obvious that he is less interested in the music the band produces than the things that inspire them to create that music in the first place.
We first encounter the band in a school library where two very feminine teenaged girls look over at the people sharing their table and ask (with eyes full of pity) why they dress the way they do… have they not heard that punk in dead? The scene is an absolute master class in concise cinematic storytelling; In nothing more than two shots and a single line of dialogue, Moodysson has established not only his film’s setting but also the sense of alienation that unites his protagonists Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) against the rest of the world.
Cursed with well-meaning but distracted parents and disgusted by the sports-obsessed culture that surrounds them, Bobo and Klara are drawn to the rebellious sounds and iconography of the local punk scene. However, while the girls may share a love of punk rock, their interest in the scene comes from two very different angles: One of many children in a huge argument-prone household, Klara is drawn to the confrontational politics of punk while the quiet and introverted Bobo uses the music to block out the pain and embarrassment she feels when forced to deal with her extroverted and sexually-expansive mother. As much as the girls have come to depend upon each other’s friendship, their different personalities and reasons for relating to punk mean that conflict is inevitable and it is this conflict that provides much of the film’s drama and substance.
Having been forced from their respective homes in search of peace and quiet, the girls wind up visiting a local youth club in an effort to find somewhere to hang out and do their homework. Upon being told that the club is reserved for people playing in bands, the girls claim to be a punk band and wind up using this convenient lie as an excuse for writing a song about how much they hate school sports. However, the girls soon realise that their complete inability to play any instruments poses something of a problem and so they decide to recruit another alienated soul, the Christian guitar player Hedvig (Viv LeMoyne).
Moodysson plays the early stages of Hedvig’s relationship with Bobo and Klara for laughs as the quiet Christian girl is so overjoyed to have actual friends that she winds up agreeing to have her head shaved by the aggressively atheistic and bombastic Klara. The following day, Klara and Bobo are called back to Hedvig’s house where her mother tries to use the desecration of her daughter’s beautiful blond hair to pressure the girls into attending church. Aside from being wonderfully awkward, the scene exposes the flaws in Bobo and Klara’s relationship and suggests that Klara always gets her way because she has the confidence to shout down all opposition. Moodysson promptly gathers up this nugget of truth and feeds it back into the plot in preparation for a far more dramatic bust-up in which Bobo and Klara fall out over their relationship with a boy.
The most striking thing about this film is its astonishing density. Not content with providing his audience with a whistle-stop tour of the 1980s punk scene and producing three exquisitely drawn characters, Moodysson unpacks his characters’ motivations and uses them to critique a society that sees little of value in teenaged girls. The film is littered with beautifully quiet scenes in which the girls come up against sexist attitudes and it is in these moments that we are reminded of the central aesthetic principle underlying world cinema: The depth and breadth of human experience is not exhausted by stories about heroic tough guys and mildly depressed middle-class people, so why should cinema limit itself to those types of stories?
At its best, world cinema provides us with a set of eyes so fresh and different that we are, for the duration of a single film, liberated from all the lies and prejudices that a society inflicts upon its members. As the credits roll, we return to our usual way of seeing the world but the empathy we felt for those fictional characters has left us forever changed. We saw the world through different eyes and felt what it was like to be someone different and to face different challenges. It is impossible to watch a film like We Are The Best without feeling for its characters and it is impossible to feel for characters like Bobo, Klara and Hedvig without pausing to consider whether our own thoughtless words and actions might not have helped to perpetuate the things that made their lives so miserable.
Heavy with wisdom but graced with the lightest of touches, We Are The Best! is a work in the very greatest tradition of world cinema. This is a film that educates, liberates and improves using nothing more than the power of cinema and basic human empathy. Oh… and it also has one of the greatest endings in recent cinematic history.