Sunday, June 22, 2014

New movie review: We Are the Best!

Mira Grosin, right, as Klara, and Mira Barkhammar, as Bobo, try out some new material in Lukas Moodysson's new film, We Are the Best!.

For a certain segment of the population, Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! will hit home. It is not defined by gender, generation, or nationalism (the movie regards three pre-teen girls in 1980s Stockholm). It is the recognition that many of us were outsiders and that the best way to deal with that status is by finding the people who will stand with you on the outside.

There have been films about punk rock before – notably Sid and Nancy and Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia – but they tend to be about the music and culture as a destructive force. It is anarchy defined by people watching from inside the box. We Are the Best! is about finding yourself, finding those like you, and plowing ahead in life, everything else be damned.

Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) is a pre-teen girl, not particularly interested in what the adults are doing or what they have to say about her. Her best friend is Klara (Mira Grosin). Klara is more self-assured but equally restless and harbors vague notions of what it is to be political. This being the Cold War 1980s, she has an affinity for knowing all there is to know about radiation poisoning and sharing that information with her not-particularly-interested peers.

The other thing they share is a love of punk rock, and the ethos being what it is, they form a band, despite having no musical ability. They join up with a Christian girl, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), because she is a talented guitarist and, they reason, they will be doing her a favor by being her friend and converting her away from Christianity.

The film hits many of the beats of coming-of-age tales that have come before it: There are distant parents, the older kids who seem so mature but are just as lost, the romance that threatens to tear everything apart, and the big performance. But like the best of its necessarily open-ended genre, We Are the Best! is less about plot mechanics and more about living with these characters for every moment they are on screen.

In this way, it reminds of last year’s more-adult Blue Is the Warmest Color. While the plot of that film is about first love and sexual awakening, the power of the film is in its little moments, allowed to breathe and envelop viewers in the lives of the characters. This is what Moodysson’s film does so well. His characters have full lives and are more than the sum of their parts, more than youth clich├ęs.

There is a spectacular moment early on when Bobo’s mother has returned home early, apparently having broken up with the most recent in a string of boyfriends. Bobo finds her mother crying and offers her tea or hot chocolate. The mother declines, and that is it. This is perfect.

From Bobo’s point of view, she does not want her mother to be sad, but there is little she can do for the older woman. She does not quite understand the emotions or how to relate to someone of her mother’s generation. Barkhammar expertly plays this curiosity and care from a distance. She has a life outside her friends, but it is not a fairy tale and it is not tragic. That is not where she lives. She and the film around her come most to life with the friends are together, but scenes such as Bobo’s brief exchange with her mother provide a richness and specificity so often lacking in characters on film.

But as I said, the film comes most to life when the three girls at its core come together. Their scenes are full of youthful energy and passion, much like the punk rock music at the film’s core, and Moodysson’s camera floats in and around their conversations and interaction in such a way that it – and by extension, the viewer – becomes the fourth friend.

The characters and the film they inhabit are funny, charming, insightful, and real. They float around from one vignette to the next. A party. A sleepover. A friend’s house. School. These are the moments of their lives, but the connecting thread is a deep and abiding friendship that will carry on after the credits have rolled and music has died down.

See it? Yes.