Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! is, first and foremost, a story about friendship. Whilst punk rock and nostalgia are the windowdressing to narrative, the primary drive of the film and the reason it works strongly on an emotional level are as a result of the lead performances and the intimacy of its storyline. Adapted from Coco Moodysson’s (Lukas’ wife) graphic novel Never Goodnight, the film acts as a collective nostalgia trip, her memories bringing about fully formed and engaging characters and his tonal control providing a consistently amusing journey.
The titular “we” is a fledgling punk band in 1982 Sweden, comprised of three teenage girls Bobo, a bespectacled introvert being raised by a single parent, Klara, a mohawk-sporting would-be activist and Hedvig, a shy religious girl whose skills on classical guitar provide the only musically sound element of the band. For the first half of the film, though, the band is a pipe dream, of sorts. We follow problems within Bobo and Klara’s families and how they are ostracised in school by a band of all boys from the local rec centre. When they form their ‘band’ to take a rehearsal slot from the boys (thus providing some karmic justice), they find a way to merge their love for music and their state of isolation.
Unlike in many other 80s-set films, Moodysson is mercifully restrained in the way in which he depicts the decade. The cinematography is mostly engaging, sharp and, at points, muted in colour. Costuming is naturally stylised but he never overreaches in replicating the era whereas other films of this ilk plaster the walls of teenage bedrooms with posters that the camera sweeps over, here the focus is always on the characters. One of the more powerful contextual elements is the music of the film, each scene in which Bobo puts on her headphones to drown out her surroundings, we see the power of music as a comfort mechanism and something precious. When Bobo shares a record with a boy from a punk band later in the film there is a real sense of both cultural currency and also breaking from self-imposed exile (this despite some clumsiness on the part of that particular subplot).
Many reviews of this film seem to centre on its contextual placement as beyond the punk era, an amusing line of dialogue suggests that Klara’s older brother lost his sense of cool when he started listening to Joy Division, yet the film doesn’t actually comment on the value of punk as a musical form, nor does it assert that these characters are genuine punks bringing about mass social change. The quality of their (curiously unnamed) band, or even the music they listen to, is unimportant, what is paramount is their engagement with it and reaction to it. What makes this engagement with punk culture endearing is that they aren’t railing against systemic corporate oppression affecting them as individuals in fact they all lead lives of comfort in a safe environment but as something to help them form their own identities. For these girls, punk is a hand-me-down genre but the disdain it accrues is almost a badge of honour. Their hairstyles, androgynous and bold, were cut that way before they formed a band they aren’t so much a byproduct of their own punk music as of their conception of a punk state of being: a rejection of the dull normality of their status quo. The shouting of “hate the sport” in their only real song is a true and hilarious expression of themselves as individuals and as a group, and when they actively reject the label of a ‘girl band’ not only do they reject normative gender roles but defend the sanctity of their act of artistic creation and themselves they are not to be pigeon-holed.
What seems to hamper the film, though, is that as a result of its sense of universality it tends to be narratively slight at points. Hedvig’s character arc is often stilted in terms of reaching points of change, and when a love triangle emerges late in the film it seems to lack some of the authenticity of the earlier scenes, almost actively creating some drama that need be resolved rather that sticking with the pleasantly languid pacing.1 Bobo’s temporary infatuation with Klara’s older brother also felt somewhat forced, though there is definitely an argument in it reflecting the dalliances and romantic trials and tribulations of her mother.
These scenes, though, don’t undermine what is, for the most part, a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age film. While the music and context provide easy engagement, it is the characters who allow the film to succeed, providing emotional authenticity and an endearing sense of camaraderie and friendship.
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