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Sunday, March 23, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Show Me Love (1998)

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Rebecka Liljeberg, Alexandra Dahlstrom

Few films about teenagers have this much respect and understanding for their subjects. While most films centering on teens are painted with broad strokes, favouring crude humour over real emotion, Show Me Love pays exquisite attention to the sometimes manic fluctuations in the ways that teenagers relate to each other and themselves. This is a coming-of-age story and a love story that is achingly – sometimes brutally – honest.

The film centers on Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) and Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom). Agnes is an outcast at school with only one friend. Her mother pushes her to be more social, while her father is more understanding of her enforced solitude, relating to her that he wasn’t very popular when he was her age, either. When he counsels her to hang in because when she’s grown it won’t matter as much, she responds the way most teenagers would by stating that she doesn’t care how she’ll feel when she’s his age, because she’s stuck in the here and now. She’s lonely and has a hopeless crush on Elin, which only adds to her feelings of alienation and otherness. Elin, on the other hand, is popular and restless, bored and not quite in control of her burgeoning sexuality. She half-heartedly enters into a relationship with Jonah (Mathias Rust), the best friend of her older sister’s boyfriend. Even though she’s fourteen and he’s seventeen, we never feel that she’s being taken advantage of because she’s always clearly in the power position. Eventually tiring of the way that Jonah agrees to everything and seems to have no opinions of his own, Elin dumps him in a spectacularly casual fashion which only highlights the extent to which she was going through the motions of teenage romance with him.

Agnes has a birthday party – a sad event to which her only friend shows up and which results in Agnes lashing out at her, declaring that they’re only friends with each other because no one else will be friends with either of them – and Elin and her sister, both drunk, crash. On a dare, Elin kisses Agnes then runs off with her sister, laughing and joking about their prank. Agnes’ despair at being made fun of by the girl she longs for, and the pain of her isolation from other people, brings her to take a razor to her wrist. However, before she can make the cut, Elin begins tossing pebbles at her window. She feels guilty about what she did and wants to apologize. They go for a walk, make plans to run off to Stockholm together, and kiss as Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” plays on the radio, an appropriate choice given Elin’s earlier lament that she hates living in Amal because by the time anything cool gets there, it’s already uncool everywhere else. This sequence tells us a lot about both girls, but Elin especially. “Is it true that you’re a lesbian?” she asks, “If you are I understand, ‘cause guys are so gross. I’m also going to be one, I think.” While it’s fairly clear that Agnes is gay, Elin’s sexuality remains more ambiguous. She relates to Agnes that her biggest fear is that she’ll never leave Amal, that she’ll get married and have kids and live a dull, meaningless life. The idea of running off to Stockholm with Agnes excites her (“We are so fucking cool!”), but it’s hard to say whether this is because she feels some genuine emotion/attraction to Agnes, or because she just wants something to happen in her life, something different and unlike what goes on in the lives of other people.

However, even though Elin is willing to commit to the fantasy of running off with Agnes, when night becomes day and they’re back at school, little has changed. Elin still hangs out with her clique, struggling over whether it’s worth jeopardizing her popularity by admitting her relationship with Agnes. For Agnes, on the other hand, the experience has made her less afraid of who she is, and makes her less willing to play the role of outcast at school. When some boys put a pin-up on her locker in an effort to taunt her, she refuses to be made embarrassed and confidently asserts her opinion on the woman’s attractiveness. The way that both girls react in the aftermath of their declarations to each other – Agnes with quiet pride, Elin with self-doubt, is part of what makes the film so real and honest.

When it was released, Show Me Love became the highest grossing film in Sweden, knocking Titanic out of the top slot. Given that it’s a film about teenage lesbians, this speaks volumes about universality of its characters, and the emotions and relationships that the film explores. This is a film where people talk to each other in ways both direct (as when Agnes admits to her mother that she’s gay) and evasive (as when Elin informs her mother that she’s gay, and then says she’s just joking, testing the waters of her mother’s reaction and then pulling back), and relate to each other in ways that are very believable and reflect a history that extends past the limits of the narrative (Elin’s relationship with her sister, for example, is a typical older sister/younger sister dynamic of fighting to the death one minute and hugging the next). The film has an ending that is ambiguously happy. Elin and Agnes brave the gauntlet of the school hallway holding hands, Elin declaring that Agnes is her girlfriend. We have to wonder, though, give Elin’s behaviour throughout the film if this is just another way for her to rebel and break the cycle of boredom of life in this small town. And even if she is sincere in her desire to be with Agnes, the final scene – which shows the two drinking chocolate milk – reminds us of just how young these two people are and how much they have yet to grow, perhaps together, but perhaps apart.

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