Saturday, 16 August 2014

We Are the Best! (Vi Är Bäst!, 2013)

Lukas Moodysson, a former poet, has been a popular filmmaker outside his native Sweden since his feature debut with Fucking Amal (aka Show Me Love, 1998), which established him as a fine hand at portraying youthful anomie, and his follow-up Together (2000) about commune life in the mid-‘70s. He then went serious with the admirably grim, if excessively blunt and questionable Lilya 4 Ever (2005), and made an English-language sojourn for Mammoth (2009). We Are the Best! is more in the vein of his early work. An overt crowd-pleaser, We Are the Best! depends on his capacity to capture, with naturalistic good-humour, the vicissitudes of being young in modern society’s zones of flux. The essential concept, adapted from a comic book by his wife Coco, is irresistible: in the early ‘80s, two 13-year old, androgynous-looking wannabe-hellions, Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), are obsessed with punk rock and start their own band in spite of having no musical knowledge whatsoever. Their self-declared outsider status sees them bickering with girly-girl classmates about whether “punk is dead,” happily mocking school concerts, and inspires them to improvise a song, “Hate Sport,” decrying obsession with sport in the face of the world’s problems, after their PE teacher sentences them to laps of the gymnasium. They reach out to a prim, religious classmate, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), whose self-composed talent as a guitarist tantalises the girls with elusive promises of actual musical quality, and in spite of their divergent values the girls fuse together into a loyal unit.

Moodysson’s skill with young actors is evident as he lets his young scamps burst with unruly energy. His familiar thrum of laidback humanism underscores the proceedings as he waggishly offers pint-sized tyros taking on anyone who offends them, starting with hair metal band Iron Fist who hog the practice space in their neighbourhood youth centre. Capitalising on a technicality about booking the space and backed up by the centre’s comically officious hippie youth counsellors, they take over that space and the communal instruments after kicking Iron Fist out, and then bash on the instruments with all the abandon of the Lord of the Flies kids dancing around the campfire. When they reach out to Hedvig, they find her surprisingly receptive to their musical obsessions and ambitions. They also offer her friendship, something she lacks, although their attempts to give her a punk haircut results in her mother (Ann-Sofie Rase) threatening to report them to the police, but then giving them a sweet lecture over milk and cookies about the hypocrisy of trying to impose their own standards of in-crowd chic on others when they’ve been avoiding that themselves. A more serious potential for a rift forms when the three girls reach out to a band of slightly older boys who have a band, Sabotage, often featured in the fanzine they read assiduously. The asymmetric hook-up sees the boys in the band, Elis (Jonathan Salomonsson) and Mackan (Alvin Strollo), having recently shed a member, interested in Klara and Hedvig, leaving Bobo, who suffers from low self-esteem, hurt by the excision. She contacts Elis herself in a naked play for his affection. 

I won’t pretend I’m a big fan of Moodysson. I haven’t seen his ventures into more oblique and experimental cinema with A Hole in My Heart (2004) and Container (2006), but his mainstream films don’t reveal a particularly imaginative filmmaker for all his poetic background – for instance, his attempts to get magic-realist in Lilya 4 Ever were clumsy, even tacky  and there’s something twitchily frustrating about his films, like one of those bugs that can skate across a pond without falling in at the cost of ever noticing the depths,  regardless of whether they're aiming for buoyancy or tragedy. We Are the Best! is a pleasant affair that might well try nerves for all its pleasantness. Moodysson pays only shallow heed to the waning days of punk and essentially reduces that rude and raucous art form into a noisy but entirely acceptable expression for kids whose postures, far from being transgressive, are based for the most part around very safe, nice, bourgeois Swedish concerns. Even a brief argument about religious faith between the girls driven by Klara’s acceptance of the iconoclastic precepts of the music ends with a cute smirk. Compared to the searing engagement of Dennis Hopper’s report from the same year this is set, Out of the Blue (1982), this is all but a Disney film. An unfair comparison, perhaps, as the aims of the two films are so disparate, but We Are the Best! is too squeaky-clean and blithely tempered for its own good. How entertaining you find the film may depend on your tolerance for the characters’ windy mix of brashness and childishness, or obvious comedic switchbacks like would-be firebrand Bobo transformed by a cut into a sobbing wretch afraid she’s going to lose her hand. The anxieties underlying the girls’ ventures into pubescence, with Bobo bemused by her mother’s revolving door relationships and disinterested in a visit by her father, and her quiet feelings of inadequacy, are described but aren’t invested with enough gravity to matter much. The film passes pretty blithely over the minor complications it throws our way, perhaps out of an over-zealous desire to validate its heroines.

Still, the film’s paucity of pretence and surplus of intimate joie-de-vivre mostly makes up for its absence of ambition and real cultural comment. To Moodysson’s credit, most of his humorous flourishes avoid feeling forced, even with insistently whimsical touches like making Klara’s father a jaunty clarinettist joining the girls for a nonsensical hoedown, or the girls trying to beg money from strangers to buy an electric guitar. At its best the film feels breezily authentic, a mirror where just about anyone from anywhere might recognise their own youths, like the girls staging a sneak raid on Klara’s older brother Linus’ student party, stealing booze to get nauseously tipsy. Perhaps the best scene in the film sees Bobo, Klara, and Elis climbing to the top of an apartment block, surveying the Stockholm landscape from their icy vantage, with Klara and Elis embracing, wrapped in steamy breath, to Bobo’s shambling chagrin: the dizzying force of protean teenage attraction and the sharply divisive emotions it can inspired are beautifully visualised. The finale, in which the girls try to perform their ramshackle anthem at a gig arranged by the youth counsellors in the satellite town of Västerås, amusingly avoids any triumphalism as they foul up badly and finish up insulting the already intolerant audience, sparking a tiny, jostling riot. Nonetheless they count it as a success having stirred a crowd, perhaps headed for oblivion as artists but having made damn sure their youth rocked. Ulf Brantås’ cinematography is a plus, utilising inevitable hand-held camerawork but essayed in bold colours, turning the cityscapes it describes into playpens for its heroines’ imaginations, its boxy, drab buildings into places where humans make their own realities.


Robert said...

I definitely see your negative points, especially on the film's tendency to breeze across the surface of the girls' troubles and its being a bit too "squeaky clean and blithely tempered" given the girls' passion is punk rock for goodness sake. But for me, though this is a poor metric for thoughtful judgment of a film, it was all about timing: the movie's lack of real probing depth came as a welcome relief from the glut of heavy, portentous, psychologically aggressive fare I've subjected myself too this last month - Calvary, Nightcrawler, Birdman, Unbroken, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, the bludgeoning list goes on. The ultimate affect of We Are the Best! for me, nailed down by the end credits sequence showing the girls "crushing capitalism" at a fast food counter with smiles aplenty, as opposed to snarls of actual anarchy, was of having witnessed a specific phase of the girls' lives in a way they probably remember it now over three decades later, with the darker shades of loves lost and musical triumphs gained long since smoothed round by nostalgia and perspective. It was actually funny and knowing to me throughout that these girls, who seem only marginally marginalized (might seem more so in their memories, in order to preserve the self-mythology), would over-express themselves with such a raucous musical form, one that they could never actually understand at that age, given their safe, accepting homes. They didn't remind me of me so much, as I was more like quiet Hedvig, only without the cojones to actually join in those sorts of antics, but they did remind me of many friends I had at that age who acted out in a way that (even to my barely pubescent mind) seemed somehow uninformed. The whole experience of the movie was like remembering my own junior high school days, rough as they were, but with the edges completely chiseled off by time.

Roderick Heath said...

An interesting and excellent comment there Rob. The thing is, nearly everything you've said can be said for me too, and I think it's that generalised, fits-all, "Yeah, me too!" quality that actually turned me off at some level. I can also see your point about the film's lightness standing out in a heavy year of moviegoing, but I just didn't find it that great. A pleasant little divertissement, nothing more, nothing less.