A truly punk act, a shout of freedom, frustration, and exaltation, hits about halfway through Lukas Moodysson's girl-punk reverie We Are the Best! The three 13-year-old protagonists, high on the idea of the three-chord band they've just started, find some damp garbage bags on the street that, they discover, are filled with discarded yarn of all colors, wrapped into tight little logs. They drag the sacks home and spill these fat caterpillars of wool on the floor, brandishing them like limp swords or uncooked hot dogs. One grabs a kitchen knife and, for no discernible reason other than the WTF-ness of it all, begins sawing a wool log in half, only to jab the knife into her hand.
"Gah!" she yells, and the two other girls hustle her into the bathroom, fluttering around her as they wash the blood off the (minor) wound and bandage it up tightly. Order is restored, but the momentary chaos was glorious. No future, no future, no future for yarn!
Brash and sweet, We Are the Best! captures perfectly the aimlessness of adolescence, the waiting to become something that's so often intertwined with the desire to make something, to leave your mark on the world in some small way. In Stockholm, 1982, two schoolgirls, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), decide that the best way to express their dissatisfaction with the world, not to mention gym class, is to form a punk band. Their school friends sneer, telling them punk is dead. They own no instruments and don't yet know what a chord is, but why let technicalities stop them? They book time at a community rehearsal space, where they thrash about on the house drum kit and a sorry old bass. Their first song is a spry little number whose chorus ("Hate the sport!") says it all. This will, as it turns out, also be their only song, though they hone it to a level of serrated perfection, especially after they recruit a third member, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), an angelic blonde and somewhat square born-again Christian who not only knows how to play guitar, but actually owns one.
Aside from the wool-stabbing incident, and a minor wrangle over the affections of a teen punk hottie from an outlying town (played by Jonathan Salomonsson), there's virtually no dramatic tension in We Are the Best!. But the movie doesn't need it; it's held together by something else, an indefinable esprit that goes beyond the garden-variety nostalgia most of us over age 30 feel for our youth. The movie is based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, the director's wife, and it's a bold and welcome departure from his recent work: Moodysson's last picture was the 2009 Mammoth, an imperfect but ambitious film about an American couple (Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams) who find their First World comfort zone threatened; his 2002 Lilya 4-Ever was the story of a young Estonian woman sold into sex slavery. Both were a far cry from his joyous and tender early pictures, Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000), and until now, it seemed that that Moodysson was gone.
We Are the Best! brings him back. Moodysson has said that, particularly after the disappointing reception of Mammoth, he wanted to change course, "to make a happy little movie that winked and glistened and told us that life isn't entirely impossible." Don't be afraid; We Are the Best! isn't quite as twinkly as all that. It has some tiny, pointy teeth, but it's too candid and openhearted to bite very hard. Casting is everything in a movie like this, and Moodysson couldn't have chosen better: Barkhammar's Bobo, with her decidedly un-punk shorn curls, is embarrassed by her mother, who's proud of how adorable she is. And while it's definitely un-punk, Bobo just can't help it — she is truly adorable. She's also the cautious one in the group, the one who wants to splash out but isn't quite sure how.
Grosin's Klara is bolder, which makes her insecurities, when they shuffle to the fore, that much more touching. And LeMoyne's Hedvig, the latecomer to the trio, has long, sun-gold hair when Klara and Bobo first meet her; in a mild nail-biter of a scene, Klara takes the scissors to that ethereal mane and turns it into a scruffy punk crop. Hedvig's mother isn't happy about this DIY stunt, but the new 'do, aside from looking boyishly beautiful, emboldens Hedvig — she can no longer hide behind her locks.
Remember when you wanted to look cool but had less than no money to spend on clothes? The heroes in We Are the Best! solve that problem admirably with their makeshift punk outfits, consisting chiefly of striped stockings, baggy shirts, keffiyeh scarves, and attitude. In the finale, they earn the chance to perform live in a small town a bus ride away from Stockholm. When they take the stage, so nervous they mess up immediately, they're met with derisive hoots from the locals, who have no interest in this "girl" band. But instead of slinking away, they fight back, turning the performance of their magnum opus, "Hate the Sport!," into a rallying cry against small-minded people everywhere.
Is their art, their message, carefully honed and reasonable? Hell, no: It's a whoop of defiance, a cathartic shedding of all the crap adolescence throws at all of us, and at girls in particular, in the form of people who underestimate or condescend to them. Their song, now refashioned into a taunt, causes a riot, and they're forced to scurry back to the bus and get out of town, fast. In their eyes, the show is a rip-roaring success. Veni, vidi, vici: They took a stand, they made a noise, they conquered. And then, most likely, homework beckoned.