We Are the Best!

September 20, 2014
Sofia Sabel, Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne in We Are the Best! (2013)
Sofia Sabel, Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne in We Are the Best! (2013)

It’s quite an adjustment to leave Frank Miller’s Sin City and arrive in Sweden, where three 13 year-old girls are trying to start a punk rock band. The only point of comparison is that Lukas Moodyson’s We Are the Best!, was based on a comic book produced by his wife, Coco.

Moodyson is known for slightly spiky, humanistic films, and We Are the Best! manages to evade most of the terrible scenarios reviewers describe as “charming” or “delightful” or – worst of all – “heart-warming”. Nevertheless, it’s a narrow squeak. The three girls who play the lead roles are cute but not quite loveable, while the adults are uniformly hopeless. It’s yet another fable of teenage empowerment in a world of childish grown-ups, but thankfully not set in one of Hollywood’s fanciful, dystopian societies of the future.

The time is 1982, when Punk’s iconoclastic moment is already fading. Bobo (Mira Barkammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are two schoolgirls who have fastened on to punk rock as a panacea for the boredom they feel in class and at home. Undeterred by the fact they can’t play any instruments, they want to start a band, mainly to express their hatred of compulsory school sport. Their one original anthem is called Hate the Sport!

The first problem arrives at the local youth club, where the girls have to wrest some rehearsal time away from a trainee heavy metal band called Iron Fist. Next they decide to recruit another band member – namely, Hedvig (Liz LeMoyne), a shy Christian girl who is something of a misfit at school. Being a misfit is an excellent qualification for punk rock stardom, but Christianity presents an impediment. Hedvig is worth the trouble because she actually knows how to play the guitar.

Bobo and Klara’s friendship is tested when they both make a play for the same boy, but there is nothing too serious in this pubescent romance. One gets the impression Moodyson is less interested in the plot than the delineation of character. He gets us to see the world through Bobo’s eyes, letting us share the exasperation she feels for her divorced mother who is always looking for love; and her slow-burning disgust at the sight of drunken adults partying. Above all, Bobo worries about Klara being prettier, sexier and more self-confident.

The great strength of We Are the Best! is that is presents a portrait of adolesence from the adolescent point-of-view, with Bobo, Klara and Hedvig being completely convincing in these roles. There is no trace of the patronising sentimentality imposed by so many directors who set out to show us what kids are ‘really like’.

Moodyson is also good at exploring the paradox of all subcultures, which start out as exercises in non-conformity, but impose a rigid set of rules that govern dress, speech, behavior, and musical taste. The girls debate these codes with the earnestness of a revolutionary splinter group discussing Marxist doctrine. At the end of We Are the Best! we may not be sure what “punk” is and isn’t, but we have learned a lot about growing up in Sweden in the early 1980s.

We Are the Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodyson
Written by Lukas Moodyson, from a comic by Coco Moodyson
Starring Mira Barkhammer, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne,
Sweden/Denmark, rated MA 15+, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th September, 2014.