Monday, June 9, 2014

We Are The Best! (****)

Vi ar Bast!
Written for the Screen and Directed by Lukas Moodysson


We see We Are The Best! through the eyes of adolescents seeking attention and adoration during a time in their lives where they are at their most emotionally vulnerable. It showcases a time where all can seem lost, where your first twelve years can seem like an eternity confirming a future life filled with loneliness and alienation. And yet, this new Swedish film isn't all that bleak about it. That's funny coming from the country of the legendary Ingmar Berman who produced dozens of film about the absence of God and the cold brutality of the world. In today's culture, we have Game of Thrones repeatedly teaching us the same lesson: the world is a horrible, violent place where justice is only around if you have the money to pay for it. Just turn on the evening news and you'll start to feel like you're living in World War Z. A film like We Are The Best! can remind audiences that there are certain aspects of life that are indeed affirming, that happiness is tucked away in certain corners of life that just need to be snuffed out. The film is just as needy as its pre-teen protagonists, but it earns our affection properly and doesn't need to plot contrivance or manipulation to convince us. It is, simply, a crowd pleaser that wins over the audience without even trying to.

The film follows two friends, Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin), living in 1980's Stockholm. The girls are both completely obsessed by the punk music scene. They even cut up their own hair, Bobo in a short spikey do and Klara with a floppy mohawk. They're met with resistance at school, often people making fun of their appearance and declaring that punk is dead. At home, they both live in dysfunction. Bobo's mother (Anna Rydgren) is a middle-aged alcoholic who rotates through men and is more often taken care of by Bobo than vice versa. Klara's parents are of the liberal, spirited variety, more comfortable being good friends then stern disciplinarians. Neither girl finds solace in their home, and that void is often filled by their friendship when they're together, and by their loud, angsty music when they are apart. When they are teased by a group of older teenagers in a metal band about their looks, Bobo and Klara scheme to spitefully take over their rehearsal space in the town's youth center. Sitting within the rehearsal space with the only two instruments that the facility can provide - drums and a bass guitar - they decide to write a song about how much they hate gym class. With no experience at writing music or playing instruments, the results are a bit uneven, to be kind, but their new band is officially formed.

The missing piece is found when Bobo and Klara go their school's talent show and see another girl from their grade, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), performing classical guitar. Hedvig is a famously pious Christian girl who seldom speaks to other students. Bobo and Klara debate whether or not to allow a religious girl into their group, before deciding to go ahead and speak to her, so that they can have at least one person in their band who knows how to play music. They invite Hedvig into their rehearsal space before playing the sloppy noise that is their school gym protest song, now named 'Hate The Sport'. Hedvig knows that they don't know what they're doing, but she's intrigued by their spirit - she hates gym class too - and decides to join the band. Hedvig is quickly indoctrinated into their style and musical choices. They even cut her long hair into a short bob so she looks more part of the group. The three girls begin rehearsing more and more, doing their best to learn on the fly how to play the one song that they've created. The girls end up delving deeper and deeper into the surprisingly deep pre-teen punk scene of Sweden, and embody the anarchy that the music so perpetually mythologizes. All three live in their own cultural prison, aided by the therapeutic power of music.

The young actresses in this film are an absolute wonder. Barkhammer, as Bobo, plays to the film's moral center. She's a young girl who believes in her style and her music, but is still afraid that her boyish haircut will prevent her from ever getting a boyfriend. Despite their brash attitudes and independent spirit, Bobo and Klara are both helpless to the attentions of boys. As Klara, Mira Grosin plays the unofficial leader of the group with an oversized personality, completely devoted to her best friend Bobo, but occasionally unaware of the size of her ego. The two girls are lucky to have met Hedvig at the time that they do, since without her influence the band would have likely flamed out amidst another break up and reunion between the two best friends. As the new element, LeMoyne plays the mediator of these two volatile presences. Performances from young actors are always hard to gauge, but the way these three represent the complex hierarchies of grade school friendships and the political nature of how we make decisions as children to help ourselves climb the social ladder. Being twelve is usually the pinnacle of adolescent insecurity, and the three actresses represent this with such wonderfully accuracy and with such a marked variety.

Lukas Moodysson is a veteran Swedish filmmaker known for his spirited, character driven independent films. I must confess that I've never seen any of his other films. We Are The Best! is intimate, brilliant in its use of handheld photography and tender in its nurturing of three young actresses who have lived no where near the 1980's post-punk scene that they're representing. Moodysson taps into the inherent nihilism that comes with being a pre-teen, the coming of intelligence before knowing how to properly process it. There's a reason why punk music is almost exclusively popular with young people since their entire existence is plagued by a brewing anger fueled by alienation and self-doubt. What better place to insert that anger then into a two minute song? The healing powers of music is something that many people, including me, are familiar with. It's the majesty of pop music. The source of meaning within pop songs is relatively meaningless. Music is manipulated in our minds to fit the needs of the audience more than any other artistic medium. We Are The Best! is about how these girls use their favorite music not only to help them cope with their situation, but to influence the opinions of all those who doubted them.

There's a little bit of Little Miss Sunshine in this film. A feeling that the collection of oddball personalities can come together to produce something wonderful, if not all excellent. The ending to We Are The Best! is quaint and without much fanfare. It doesn't need the big ending with a boisterous, spirited performance for their amateurish band. It doesn't need the School of Rock ending, basically. This is not about three girls becoming better musicians, but becoming base-level musicians as a way to become more secure in themselves. It's not a surprising arc considering the nature of the film, and it's the most satisfying one. We Are The Best! is a film that made me feel good as a human being, gave me a glimmer of hope about the human race as a species if only for a brief, fleeting moment. It pushed the right buttons in me, and I didn't feel manipulated. In their own way, Bobo, Klara and Hedvig become a family; a family that doesn't need the assurances of outsiders to validate their unorthodox lifestyle. They're the kind of friends I wished I could have had when I was in middle school, overcoming the steep hill that is the adolescent social pyramid. The film's very title represents its very intoxicating spirit: results be damned, your attitude can dictate your level of happiness in life.

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