Last time we checked in with Swedish enfant terrible Lukas Moodysson, he was railing against the world in a series of film-tirades – the tough A Hole in My Heart, the semi-impenetrable Container, the glum Mammoth – that felt like the auteur equivalent of a bedroom door being loudly and repeatedly slammed. Good news: the sulk appears to have lifted. With We Are the Best!, Moodysson funnels that wayward adolescent angst into his characters, then stands back to observe their attempts – both futile and, in a way, triumphant – to shake up their surrounds.
The focus here is on Bobo and Klara (Mira Barkhammer and Mira Grosin), a pair of pre-teens who decide to form a punk band at a moment (Stockholm, 1982) where they’re told that punk is dead. The fact their older brothers are listening to Joy Division, and their more conventionally pretty classmates are rehearsing aerobics routines to the strains of the Human League, only spurs these androgynous outsiders on all the more. They’re different; why shouldn’t their music be so?
Though the band starts as an outlet for letting off steam – their first song is a rant against P.E. – the girls are just old enough to realise performing might be a political act: a means of questioning the rules and cosiness that governs their lives. Soon, they’re faced with the kind of ethical quandaries grown-ups face every day: a heated internal debate ensues over whether to bring in Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), an older, Christian girl – and thus something of an outsider herself – to lend an extra credibility to their ode to secularism “Hanging God”.
The fun lies in the respect the film accords these kids. In what may be the most bang-up job of directing children since Richard Linklater made School of Rock, Moodysson regards these girls as emergent personalities rather than script delivery systems. Each loose, semi-improvised scene allows them to discover themselves – their look, their sound, the terms of their relationship – as the cameras are rolling, which provides a constant stream of fond, irreverent or otherwise amusing episodes.
This may be a problem for the narrative, which winds up heading nowhere in particular. Yet set against the general flailing of Moodysson’s previous works, there’s something winning indeed about the director’s rediscovery of the funny, telling social detail, and the way his restless camera zooms in occasionally – as it did throughout 2000’s infallibly heartening Together – to highlight some aspect of the girls’ contrasting households.
What builds up is a mosaic of Swedish middle-class life circa 1982: one house the preserve of an absent mother trying to shore up her marriage, the other a woolly liberal utopia itself rather bemusedly enduring the aftershocks of women’s lib, as evidenced by a dad (David Dencik) who bridles at doing his own washing, and wanders into the girls’ jam sessions, hopefully clutching his clarinet. It’s a compendium of such anecdotes, rather than a major artistic statement, but a spirited and charming one – and one of the most appreciable directorial comebacks in years.
(MovieMail, April 2014)
We Are The Best! screens on Channel 4 this Friday at 1.05am.