In the same way that a kid raised on Wonder Bread may be loath to eat whole wheat, "We Are the Best!" by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson will challenge some American attention spans. That's a shame, because this tale of three tween girls who form a punk band has much more to offer than its premise might suggest.
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne.
Rating: No MPAA rating but contains some profanity and teenage drinking.
This is in part due to the film's refusal to conform too much to its own concept. It's set in the early 1980s, but audiences aren't bombarded with Rubik's Cubes or other hackneyed time-stamps. The girls start a punk band, but they're so young you can't imagine them rebelling against any force greater than their gym teacher. A rivalry forms over a boy, but boys are only a transient presence in a story that ultimately has more to do with girls defining themselves in a manner independent of whether they have a boyfriend.
This complexity is expressed not only in the story arc but also in the production. From the total lack of musical underscoring to the camera, which often pans dizzily or cuts from one shaky close shot to another, Mr. Moodysson uses his craft to embrace the awkward pacing of adolescence.
Production aside, it's the three main characters -- with a standout performance by Mira Grosin -- who make this fun to watch.
Take Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), the first of the three girls introduced. With short, bland hair and the kind of glasses that even Harry Potter would have turned down, Bobo looks more prepared to solve a crossword puzzle than to start a revolution. Raised by a single mother who is distracted with her own social life, Bobo is the outsider-observer who becomes the thoughtful, nuanced counterpart to Klara (Ms. Grosin), her more confident, mohawked friend and the de facto band leader.
Their relationship dictates the story, resulting in a sort of narrative messiness, both a strength and a source of occasional flat spots in the action.
It begins when Bobo inadvertently passes the basketball to the opposing team in gym class, and Klara jumps in to defend her from criticism. Bobo conceives of a song about the absurdity of sports obsession in a world full of suffering, and Klara dashes off a few rhymes such as "nature is truly polluted / but you only care about the recruited."
Problem is, they know nothing about playing music, so they recruit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), a friendless, overtly Christian classical guitar player whose performance at a school talent show is interrupted by boys shouting "Strip! Strip!"
Hedvig's musical talent is one example of Mr. Moodysson's smart narrative choices. Where some writers might have created a Susan Boyle-esque moment of recognition, here Hedvig's talent is often compromised by her nerves or the situation -- including a riot.
"We Are the Best!" is at times funny but never sacrifices its naturalism for cheap laughs. Searching for an American comparison, the humor is sort of like that of "Freaks and Geeks."
In style, however, the film shares more with Gus Van Sant than Judd Apatow. The camera takes minutes to explore scenes that could have taken seconds. The girls play with yarn, cut Hedvig's hair and try to catch snowflakes in their mouths. In one gorgeous shot, Bobo walks alone on the snow-covered roof of an apartment complex, looking out over a fog-shrouded cityscape. In addition to softening the plot, this sense of awe serves to reconnect viewers with what it's like to be young and so capable of raw emotion.
On the surface, "We Are the Best!" reminds us what any high school outcast already knows: that punk rock is a sort of alchemy, whereby nerds can become cool and the shy are able to take the spotlight.
More important, though, "We Are the Best!" reminds us of the mess that is adolescence, and why we never forget the friends we made when we were young.
In Swedish with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Melwood Screening Room.