It’s 1982 and punk is dead. Spearheading its return (at least at their school), are thirteen-year-old best friends: the stoic Bobo and loudmouth Klara. They sculpt their handmade hacked-at hairdos with soap, goof around at the youth center after school, and race to the phone to talk to each other when they get home. From beginning to end, Swedish flick We Are The Best! is an infectiously joyous coming-of-age story.
The tale of the teen girls who form a punk band in Stockholm in the early ‘80s is based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight, a semi-fictional memoir by Coco Moodysson, whose husband Lukas Moodysson wrote and directed the film adaption, which begins playing in theaters around the country this month. The three high schoolers at the core of We Are the Best! explore well-trodden topics of friendship, music fandom, and the pains of growing up—but unlike the plethora of other rite-of-passage films, this one never panders. The film emulates the same revitalizing rush as the punk music the girls devour; watching it feels like being simultaneously smacked in the head and chest and gut.
The film really gets rolling when older boys at the youth center, with their all lanky long locks and double denim, snark that Bobo and Klara are the “ugliest girls in town” and swagger away to a regularly scheduled jam session in the center’s practice room. The girls take vengeance by reserving the room for themselves. When youth center’s male supervisors point out that the boys actually have a band, Bobo pipes up without missing a beat, “So do we.” And thus a punk band is born. Inspiration comes quick: while Bobo bashes away at drums, Klara openly strums the bass and yells a mantra of “the prettiest girls in town.” The duo pens their first (if only) song “Hate The Sport” after getting guff from a gym teacher. While looking for musical direction, the resourceful friends recruit Hedvig, a friendless girl who endures a chorus of scorn for playing classical acoustic guitar every year at the school talent show. When Hedvig once again meets her classmates taunts of “Strip! Strip!” with a blank stare and soldiers on with her perfect chords, she catches Klara and Bobo’s interest.
From left: Klara, Bobo, and the talented Hedvig.
We Are The Best! revels in these small moments. In fact, it’s a film about process rather than results. There’s no grand narrative arch to the plot, the story just steadily bumps along as the girls scramble after antics and ideas. It’s the in-between moments of their friendship that cut the deepest—every wide-eyed grin expression and supressed giggle, or the countless shots of Bobo studying her own reflection in the mirror as she puzzles through how she feels about her body. The film feels like being thirteen, mimicking that aching loneliness, boredom, and brash confidence that comes from feeling like it’s you and your friends against the world.
But what makes We Are The Best! an anomaly on the coming-of-age film shelf is its total lack of mean streak. Instead of a moral tale, the film has a respect for the girls’ agency. While Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig do distinguish themselves from their peers—with their androgynous style to their rants on environmentalism and their disregard for the school’s social structure—the film never brands them as freaks or dismisses their actions. Instead, we’re cheering for them as they fumble along. Forgoing the teen movie staple of a time-lapse montage that would magically improve the girls’ bourgeoning musical talents, the film is stubbornly realistic. The girls sound like a real teenage punk band with just a few months of practice, keeping in every bum note and jerky beat—and they love it.
It’s rare to see female music fans depicted onscreen without the an emphasis on how they’re excited about music to impress someone or achieve some material goal. Here, the girls are excited about music for music’s sake: Bobo spends countless scenes sitting in her poster-plastered bedroom, alone, headphones pulled over her eyes, holding on tightly to her Walkman. Punk, at least in the eyes of others, has had its day—Klara bemoans the fact that her brother has betrayed punk for Joy Division. But instead of lingering on this or wallowing in nostalgia, Bobo and Klara grasp onto the music they love. For them, punk is about self-expression and the opportunity to influence people. They don’t start their band out of ambition for fame or money—they never even decide on a name. When they practice, they grin through every song.
It’s significant that the film succeeds in depicting healthy friendships, particularly between the three lead girls. While they engage in small power struggles that seem realistic for teens, the film digs deeper to uncover the underlying emotions behind their actions, rather than setting them up to fritter away their friendship with made-for-Hollywood drama. The only verbal flack the girls get about their appearance comes from their peers. “You could be super cute if you just stopped looking like that,” says a crimped-haired, bubblegum-poppin’ classmate to Bobo and Klara. Instead of taking the insult to heart, Klara instantly rolls her eyes and taps her pen on her notebook, restless to shift the focus back onto their schoolwork. Moodysson uses this tactic throughout the film, gently steering the audience to laugh, but not at the protagonists. When Bobo’s mother and her friends genuinely admire Bobo’s DIY haircut, the audience can almost hear the young punk rolling her eyes—but the joke’s not on Bobo, it’s on us, out in the theatre recalling a time when we unfairly pigeonholed our parents were insufferable, too.
Later, in a small, beautiful moment, Bobo confides quietly that she’s unhappy with her life, and Klara holds her and strokes her hair. “You’re in the world’s greatest band,” says Klara. “You have a friend that really likes you—two friends, actually. And that’s all you need.”
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Chiara Grassia is a writer and music geek; her heart belongs in Portland, Oregon but all her stuff is in Canberra, Australia.