Review: We Are The Best! (2014)

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Director: Lukas Moodyson
Screenwriters: Lukas Moodyson & Coco Moodyson
Cast: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne, Johan Liljemark, Alvin Strollo, Jonathan Salomonsson, Anna Rydgren & Mattias Wiberg
Runtime: 102 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R33H0ONZcSY]

Lukas Moodyson has a reputation for indulging in darker, more cynical cinema, so it’s quite a pleasant surprise to see him tackle a project like We Are the Best!, a film that revels in both childlike wonder and youthful anarchy. Set in Stockholm in 1982, the film follows three schoolgirls – Bobo (Barkhammar), Klara (Grosin) and Hedvig (LeMoyne) – who, in a bid to embrace their “outsider” status, decide to form a punk band, even though everyone keeps erroneously informing them that “punk is dead”.

Though I don’t wish to dismiss it in such simplistic terms, Moodyson’s film has an air of Blue is the Warmest Colour mixed with Good Vibrations about it, though as these are two of the best films of the last twelve months, this is hardly a bad thing. Though it shares little in common with either film outside of the basics, what I mean is that We Are the Best! successfully explores teenage angst and a lack of belonging alongside some broader political ideas about the Cold War, the state and aim of punk and the general malaise that was affecting Sweden at the time, all through the medium of a simple, universal, apolitical story.

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Amidst all of the posturing on punk’s universality from Moodyson, what is most striking about the film is how effortlessly it captures a brief slice of childhood. The three girls are all expertly crafted, acted and styled to capture that wonderful teenage belief that no matter how bad you are at something, you can achieve practically anything. The film throws the audience into a glistening appreciation of individualism, in which the outcasts are courageous enough to want and dare to be different and in which the political battle lines are as simple but all-powerful as the battle between punk’s individuality and disco’s commercialism. The girls are driven – as all teenagers are – by an unwavering belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong (“He betrayed punk”, Klara declares of her brother at one point. “He listens to Joy Division”), which is part of what makes them so believable.

Similarly, Moodyson doesn’t shy away from the innate contradictions of what the girls proclaim to believe. For them, punk is a way of expressing their individuality, though as the film rumbles on cracks begin to appear. Despite a professed belief in individuality, Klara takes to demanding conformity from her two friends while Hedvig is forced to juggle her desire for acceptance from people with her desire for acceptance from her Mother and, more importantly, God. It is through these contradictions that Moodyson discovers the beautiful, philosophical humour in the tale, which he utilises to great effect in telling a story that is heartfelt without being cloying and meaningful without being overbearing.

We Are the Best! deals, primarily, in all of the classic tropes of a “coming-of-age” story, particularly with regards to friendships and sex, which ultimately turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. It gets all of the general stuff spot-on, such as the scene in which the girls get drunk for the first time or the scenes in their respective houses, where the generational divide between young and old – and between individualism and what the three girls perceive as commercialism – is at its most effective. However, it suffers from the fact that certain aspects of the tale, such as the inevitable tensions in the friendship group, are all too obvious. I spent the first hour or so hoping that the individualist streak that had driven the film through to its final act would mean that such trivialities were to be avoided but, alas, this wasn’t the case. You see, for all of the supposed individuality, the film ultimately engages in a rather structured form of anarchy, which stunts the message somewhat.

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I’m also a bit uncomfortable with the fact that a film about three independent, punk-loving girls turns, in its final act, into a generic tale of two of these girls fighting over a shit boy. I get that Moodyson wanted to explore the perils of sexual awakening but I thought that this element of the tale served to undo all of the excellent stuff that came before it. It almost feels like a sacrifice of the film’s punk credentials in order to tell a bland and unnecessary “love” story that doesn’t fit with the film’s overall tone. It recovers just in the time for the final scenes, in which the girls reunite and give the performance of their lives but I think it would’ve benefitted from avoiding such a generic turn of events altogether.

Nonetheless, on the whole We Are the Best! is a hugely enjoyable, heart-warming and amusing film. It never quite manages greatness but if often flirts with it and it does a grand job of capturing childhood in all of its glorious complications. The performances of the three leads are fantastic and Moodyson demonstrates a real knack for directing youngsters with a light but authoritative touch. I perhaps wanted to like this a bit than I ultimately did, not least because the subject matter really appeals to me, but nonetheless I think it is, despite a few reservations, a solid success.

Punk is dead? Not a chance of it!

★★★½

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