BY STEVE ERICKSON | Here’s a list of things Americans associate with Sweden: social democracy, ABBA, Ingmar Bergman, IKEA, crime novels. Punk rock is notably missing. For the three teenage heroines of Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!,” that fuels their fury all the more. Fury, though, may not be the best word to describe any aspect of this delightful but lightweight film.
The punk band in “We Are the Best!” only gets around to writing one song — a protest tune against sports. By using only Swedish-language punk on the soundtrack, Moodysson may be making a point about the strength of the country’s homegrown scene. Yet the teenage musicians he depicts are thoroughly middle-class and deeply sheltered. The 1977 British punk scene had its share of poseurs pretending to be working-class, but it also reflected real anger and despair. The Swedish band who sing “Brezhnev and Reagan/ Fuck off” seem to be doing so because they think leftist politics are part of the punk package.
Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are two bored 13-year-old girls in 1982 Stockholm. Their baby boomer parents have the misguided notion they’re still hip. Bobo and Klara are enamored with the Swedish punk scene — though everyone else thinks it’s dead — and decide to start a band. They don’t own any instruments and even if they did, they don’t know how to play them. However, they sign up for band rehearsals at a local youth center.
At a talent show, Bobo and Klara see Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), an extremely talented guitarist. Despite several off-putting traits — her Christianity and the fact that she plays classical music on an acoustic guitar — she is invited into the band, and they begin incessantly practicing their one song.
When Moodysson debuted with “Show Me Love,” a tender teenage lesbian love story, his work felt like a real breath of fresh air in Scandinavian cinema, not least for its light touch. His follow-up, “Together,” about a failing commune in the ‘70s, continued down the same path, but Moodysson’s work grew darker with “Lilya 4-Ever.” This new tone didn’t suit him, and he seems to have wasted years searching for a different style. Although nothing much seems to be at stake in “We Are the Best!” — unlike Moodysson’s first two films — it’s something of a return to his strengths.
“We Are the Best!” is a celebration of female friendship, something that’s still all too rare in contemporary cinema. The differences between Hedvig and the duo of Klara and Bobo wind up uniting them. When Hedvig points out it’s not really the greatest idea for 13-year-olds to drink alcohol, her refusal to partake doesn’t lead to any long-term problems for the band. Her Christianity might be a bigger sticking point, but she has a sense of humor about it and her band members are willing to accommodate her. When Klara and Bobo give Hedvig a bad haircut and anger her mother, Hedvig forgives them and takes their side, even when Klara suggests her mother has a point. In a world where female jealousy and competition are so often depicted as the norm, Moodysson’s optimism is refreshing.
Unfortunately, Moodysson’s main attempt to create drama falls flat. The band takes a trip to the suburbs to meet up with a male punk duo. Rather than seeing them as musical competition, Hedvig, Klara, and Bobo’s libidos suddenly kick into gear and they treat the band as potential boyfriends. The film turns into a love triangle, and jealousy threatens to break apart the girls’ affection for one another. That angle, stale and overused in 2014, is quickly resolved, and the film soon goes back to exalting female bonding. Unlike “Show Me Love,” there’s no hint that any of the girls in “We Are the Best!” are lesbians.
“We Are the Best!” evokes punksploitation films like Allan Moyle’s “Times Square,” riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna’s favorite movie. It may have a tighter grasp on reality than “Times Square” — in which a teenage girl manages to get a job at a strip club where she doesn’t have to take her clothes off — but one senses a certain distance in Moodysson’s approach, as well. For one thing, his memories seem colored by nostalgia. “We Are the Best!” is the kind of film in which learning one song and surviving the taunts of male hecklers can end up seeming more triumphant than living out the entire career of ‘70s female glam-punk band the Runaways.
WE ARE THE BEST! | Directed by Lukas Moodysson | In Swedish with English subtitles | Magnolia Pictures | Opens May 30 | Angelika Film Center | 18 Houston St. at Mercer St. | anglikafil