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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review: We Are the Best! (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne

In 1998, writer/director Lukas Moodysson broke through with Show Me Love, one of the all-time great films about adolescence. 15 years and 7 features later, he's come out with We Are the Best! which is, perhaps, not one of the all-time great films about adolescence, but is pretty damn great nevertheless. Adapted from the graphic novel Never Say Goodnight, written by Moodysson's wife, Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best! is a sweet, funny, and appropriately melodramatic story of three teenage girls trying to carve out identities for themselves. Employing a light touch that finds the sweet spot between taking the characters seriously and rendering their story in too serious a fashion, Moodysson has created a wonderful and incredibly engaging film about the minor tragedies and massive triumphs of growing up.

Set in Stockholm in 1982, We Are the Best! is about Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), two misfits whose devotion to punk music and style makes them outcasts at school. Klara, who sports a mohawk and is the more confident of the two, has a comfortable home life with parents that Bobo insists are "cool," though Klara denies this, and siblings, including an older brother Linus (Charlie Falk), who was once punk himself but, to Klara's disappointment, has since become more conventional. Bobo, meanwhile, is more shy and insecure, certain that her short haircut makes her look like a boy, and lives with her mother, who is generally more concerned with her love life than she is with Bobo. Together Klara and Bobo spend a lot of time at a local youth center where, after being taunted by four older boys who play in a band called Iron Fist, they decide to start a band of their own - though they neither own nor know how to play any instruments. The youth center has a practice space and two instruments, a drum kit and a bass, which Klara and Bobo begin playing indiscriminately as they write their first song, a rousing salvo against jock culture called "Hate the Sport," but quickly realize that they need the help of someone who knows what they're doing. To that end they zero in on a student who is also an outcast, albeit for very different reasons: Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a devout Christian who enters the school's talent competition every year and is mercilessly heckled by other students despite being a talented guitar player.

Though she worries, at first, that Klara and Bobo may be playing a joke on her when they tell her how good she is and that they want her to join their band, Hedvig joins nevertheless and teaches Klara and Bobo how to play their instruments and how to put together a melody to create their song. The trio's friendship is tested, however, after Klara and Bobo talk Hedvig into letting them cut her hair so that she can look more "punk," which upsets Hedvig's mother once the deed is done. Other problems arise when the girls meet a pair of teenage boys who have their own punk band, with one taking a liking to Hedvig and the other taking a liking to Klara, leaving Bobo feeling left out. This turn of events, coupled with Bobo's unrequited crush on Linus and her general feelings that her haircut has rendered her unattractive and that Klara bosses her around, prompt her to attempt to prove something to herself by undermining Klara's new relationship and getting the boy for herself. Her subsequent guilt, and Klara's anger, threatens to torpedo both the band and the friendship.

One of the reasons why We Are the Best! works so well is because it understands that though the stakes are objectively quite low, the blend of all those minor things that make up the typical adolescent experience can make for a very rich story. We Are the Best! is about a trio of girls coming together and forming a band in the face of scorn and disbelief from others, but it's also about how kids play around with their physical appearance and try on different roles as they try to figure out their identities, how the addition of a new person to a friendship alters its interior dynamics, how the different rates at which two people reach the next milestone of growing up can lead to jealousy and compromise a friendship, and how sometimes kids are at a loss to articulate all that they're feeling and end up expressing themselves through ill-considered actions because they can't find the words to explain where they're at. The film deals in all these issues through its characterization of the girls and their friendship, portraying them with sensitivity and understanding, and Moodysson is able to coax wonderful and very natural performances out of Barkhammar, Grosin, and LeMoyne. Klara, Bobo, and Hedvig don't end up feeling like an adult storyteller's conception of young teenagers, but like actual young teenagers, feeling things very intensely and jumping from one melodrama to another.

Despite the film's more serious moments, including a confrontation between Klara and Bobo and scenes set in Bobo's home which demonstrate how much her mother's identity and sense of self-worth are caught up in whatever man is currently in her life, which in turn sheds some light on the issues that Bobo is having, We Are the Best! is ultimately a film with a light heart and a joyful outlook. Though the finale involves a "big show" that gives the girls a chance to show what they're capable of, their story isn't really about proving themselves to others because they've already figured out what really matters to them, which is having fun together. In the end one of their would-be mentors declares that they are, in fact, "the worst" and it's funny because he doesn't understand what we've long-since discovered after spending 102 minutes with the girls: they really are the best.

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