Monday, April 7, 2014

'We Are the Best!' (Vi är bäst!) (2013) directed by Lukas Moodysson

Everybody sells out in the end.  Punk is kicking back against the morosely safe, taking a good hard look at the craggy-faced suits meandering down the streets, the alcoholic absent parents, the lying self-serving politicians and the tyranny of sadistic policeman and spitting in their eyes. Unfortunately time is a cruel mistress, and like waves beating against a cliff ,punks are inevitably eroded away by the realities of life. It's easy to curl your lip and tell the world to fuck off when you've got no responsibilities and lots of free time - it's harder when you've got a couple of kids under your belt and a job to think about.  It's this process that turned the snarling, self abusive Johnny Rotten into John Lydon, butter salesman.

Set in 1982, Lukas Moodysson's film is about punk as a young person's game.  It's an examination of the purity of teen rebellion, of being mad as hell but not knowing quite what to do about it.  So, appropriately, our central punks are three 13 year old girls. They're a great combination; Klara (Mira Grosin) mohawked, outgoing and elfen, Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) an introverted teen girl Trotsky and Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne) buttoned up but slowly learning the joys of rebellion.  We open on Klara and Bobo as fast friends, the only two punks in a sea of pastel 80s fashion and crappy haircuts.  Teased by the girls and insulted by the boys they mutually and tenderly support each other.

This is a loose, naturalistic narrative, though the core is their steadily improving band. Annoyed by lunkhead hair metallers they invade the community rehearsal space and figure that if they have access to instruments they may as well write some songs.  At first they're childishly inept, banging away on the drums and whacking some bass strings like it's going out of style.  Their one song is a catchy 1 chord ditty about how much they hate P.E "Hate the Sport".  But soon they absord Hedwig into the band, impressed by her classical guitar skills. Their not-so-secret plan is to "turn her away from God" (and towards punk rock rebellion).  

As band gets better the three girls struggle through a soup of adolescent angst. There's absent parents to deal with, immature boys to moon over, schoolwork to contend with, snatched experiments with drink, money troubles and a thousand tiny betrayals and makeups.  All this forms a warm tapestry of teenage life, Moodysson quickly creating and maintaining a warmly pleasant atmosphere - one where the majority of scenes end with the girls collapsing into happy giggles.

I imagine working with child actors is a complete nightmare.  At least animals can be trained - children can pretty much do whatever they want, the director hoping they don't find out that he's secretly powerless to do much about them.  Child actors have a frustrating tendency to be overly mannered, visibly bearing the scars of viciously competitive stage mothers and self-conscious about how they're going to look on screen.  There's none of this in We Are the Best!  I have no idea how you'd even begin to get performances like this out of children, the film often feeling like Moodysson has just told the girls to go for it and he'll cut the film together out of whatever they come up with.

This control that the girls is a huge plus, their freedom to improvise cementing their autonomy in the narrative.  Largely shot from their perspective, the saggy and stupid adults loom over the diminutive leads, helping us identify directly with them rather than to feel parental.  It helps that they're so energetic and dynamic, making the adult characters seem to  move in a bumbling slow-motion.  There's no villain in the film (or even anybody who could remotely be an antagonist) though, and it's a measure of Moodysson's warm humanity that even characters like Hedwig's devoutly Christian mother turn out to be reasonable, kind people that intuitively understand what these girls are going through.

That every major character is supportive and permissive does wonders in creating a pleasant cinematic atmosphere though, to be frank, it makes for rather relaxed drama.  It feels odd to criticise a film for being too upbeat and friendly, but about two-thirds of the way through the film you're itching for something momentous to happen - anything to rattle the status quo a bit and introduce some spice into the film. But nothing much does happen, the film meandering its way to a finale that's fuzzy and feel-good but not particularly exciting.

Where We Are the Best! excels in capturing the emotional pendulum of adolescence. One moment these girls are trying their best to be mature and grown-up, the next they're giggling and playing like the children they are. They go from moments of absolute punkish self-confidence to soul-searching insecurity without skipping a beat - Moodysson making the most emotionally and intellectually complicated things straightforward and accessible.  Not only that, he makes it look as easy as pointing the camera at these girls and yelling "action".  

Throughout there's a subtle focus on what it means to be punk, the girls embodying the individuality and intelligence at the heart of the movement, personifying the desire not to take the world at it's word - to question, mock and explode accepted wisdom.  In all these things it succeeds, meaning We Are the Best! is, by and large, a worthwhile watch. But I like some spice and conflict in my cinema and at the final curtain this is a touch too fluffy for my liking.  


We Are The Best! is on general release from April 18th

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