Like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, or David Chase’s criminally underrated Not Fade Away, the 2013 Swedish’s film We are the Best! occupies the small subgenre of coming-of-age films filtered through the joy of music. And while the former two are American classics in their own right—exploring the importance and influence of music to a specific generation of teenagers in the midst of small-town suburbia, Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best! portrays an even further removed class of characters navigating their confused adolescence through their love of music during a country’s time of transition: those adolescents being an ostracized trio of thirteen-year-old girls, the country in transition being 1982 Stockholm, and the music genre in question being bombastic punk rock.
Similar to how Almost Famous imbues its sensibilities with that of a teenage-fever-dream, evoking those same emotions found in the best of the era’s seventies rock bands, and Not Fade Away replicates those same feeling of angsty, raw, and manic rock-and-roll found in the best of The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, We are the Best! injects its own sensibilities with all the primal and explosive power found in the best of the era’s punk rock.
The three girls composing this anomalous punk band are Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig. The former two complete tomboys and androgynous in appearance, growing up in homes distinctly different yet similarly dysfunctional, and complete outcasts at school for their stubbornly nonconformist attitudes. These thirteen-year-old girls have no one but each other: misfits within their family, amongst their classmates, and amongst larger Swedish society surrounding them—except through their one outlet of punk.
In an spur of the moment decision to start a band to spite a rival band of bullies, these two teenage girls demonstrate their level of actual musical prowess in a memorable debut performance—that is to say: they are terrible.
They bang on the drums and strum on the guitar like children let loose with toys, belting out non-sensical lyrics with little goal toward tune or harmony. Yet, that same childish glee radiates off the screen to powerful emotional effect upon the viewer. And as the two find an undeniable bliss through punk—a channel to funnel their angst, anger, and alienation—the two make a pact to try and make this music thing work, despite their obvious limitations in talent.
In spite of this description, the most important quality bestowed upon the film is a sense of authenticity and earnestness that could not be farther away from the phony qualities shared by so many genre features bearing similar aesthetics. These kids are true-blue goofy, often mumbling dialogue under their breath or struggling to look adults in the eye, yet are never written with a forced sense of affectation. In credit to the young actors (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), the girls are never portrayed as characters in a movie seeking the audience’s approval but as free-spirited youngsters who happened to be caught by the camera. Aided by a documentarian lens to the cinematography, the filmmakers portray the girls’ life in appropriate cinema verite fashion—as the three scream, shout, and argue with local authority figures as can only be found in the blissful ignorance and carefree attitudes of kids left to their own devices.
Moreover, the movie manages to perfectly capture the array of ambiguous feelings associated with these formative teenage years, especially for those on the fringes of their adolescent peers. Perhaps only as equally well captured as seen in television’s Freaks and Geeks over a decade ago, We are the Best! delineates a distinct portrait of these outsiders struggling to come to terms with their identity. Desperate to be liked and yet resentful of everyone around them, the two teeter between a confused adolescence of wanting relationships and friends and wanting to uphold their idiosyncratic identities as the school misfits and proud punks. Later, as the two charge ahead in forming their punk rock band, they quickly recruit a third player into their party: Hedvig.
Hedvig is a misfit of a different sort—one having grown up in a strict religious household and raised to perform classical music. This final band member finds friendship with the two in the fact that she literally has no other friends—she is known as the girl that eats alone at lunch. Quickly, she realizes that as strange as these two punks might be—it’s better than sitting alone. Joined by Hedvig, the trio finally formalizes their band’s identity and solidifies their friendship for its future.
Again, as corny and phony as that sounds in description, the actual scenes are anything but. Despite having one (terrible) song with hilariously bad lyrics as only two teenage girls could cook up (“Hate the Sport/Hate the Sport/Hate Hate Hate The Sport)”, the two begin to fall for all the classic trappings of a great rock band: clashing over egos, boyfriends, and the breakings of their initial bonds of friendship. The film wisely uses the catalyst of their forming a band to explore these perennial issues plaguing any adolescent and fully engages in their triumphs and consequences to sequences of raw, emotional devastation or heart-thumping cheers.
In short, this is a movie with a pulse. That makes palpable those poignant moments of childhood—friendship, heartbreak, creativity, competition, social anxiety, familial misunderstanding, and rebellion—and services these wide-ranging emotions in a swift two hours: all through the deceivingly simple premise of three talentless, teenage girls forming a punk band in early eighties Sweden.