Films about punk, whether documentary or narrative, tend to embrace the music’s spirit of nihilism, suggesting that its fans and practitioners either end up dead (as in Out of the Blue) or, worse, a sell-out (Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains). But Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! is as exuberant as the exclamation mark in its title would suggest. The closest it has to a truly miserable moment occurs at the start, with 13-year-old Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) sitting glumly at the outskirts of her mother’s birthday party, looking more cynical and world-weary than the adults nearly four times her age. As a depiction of angst, this is fairly lightweight, but it’s also honest. Other punk movies take place against backdrops of domestic and social horror, but the worst thing facing Bobo and her mohawked chum, Klara (Mira Grosin), is that their parents are kind but terminally unhip.
Even the girls’ decision to start a band feels less like a matter of destiny than simple teenage bluster, prompted not by a need to make music, but a desire to disrupt the rehearsals of a metal band they hate. Bashing at drums and bass like toddlers who wandered into a studio, Bobo and Klara epitomize the punk ethos, and before long they’re writing politically tinged rants about gym class and perfecting their haircuts to complete their image. Eventually, they even rope in a guitarist, the classically trained Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), with whom they share a rapport of loneliness and sense of being different. The more conservative Hedvig is the Johnny to Klara’s Joey, but she becomes fast friends with the other two and even teaches them some music basics like what, exactly, a chord is.
Moodysson’s handheld camera is keenly attuned to the energy of the young leads. It fidgets with excitement when the girls add a new line or couplet to their song, and it jerks in time with their discomfort around others. The use of snap-zooms and whip-pans aligns the film with post-Office situation comedy, but Moodysson makes the most of that connection, regularly wringing humor from the film. As Bobo and Klara watch with mild horror as a group of classmates in Spandex enact a kind of Jazzercise routine to the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” at a school talent show, a shot that zooms in on the friends amusingly visualizes their eye-rolling and boredom. In one of the funniest scenes, Bobo, Klara, and a reluctant Hedvig sneak alcohol out of Klara’s brother’s party, the fast edits and darting camera moves indicative of the spy-like skills the kids think they possess even though it’s obvious all the older teenagers can see the trio steal beer and wine.
These sequences exist as observational moments unto themselves, and generally speaking, the film avoids all the usual pitfalls of conflict. As a group of pre-pubescents simply having fun, the girls never face the machinations of the music industry, and a wrinkle in Bobo and Klara’s friendship over shared affection for a boy is smoothed out with minimal strife. We Are the Best! is instead about the awkwardness and pockets of bliss that come with being a weird kid who suddenly finds not necessarily a calling, but at least a hobby. The only arc to speak of comes from watching kids who initially know so little that they must confirm that drums have no electrical cords eventually gain enough competence to play a three-chord, two-minute tune. It’s a fitting metaphor for the film’s loose coming-of-age story, in which the age in question is adolescence, not adulthood. Among the many insights buried in this amiable comedy is that one must mature into the former as much as the latter.
The film’s soft, pastel-rich color palette and natural lighting are ably presented by Magnolia’s 1080p transfer. Flesh tones are consistently warm, and the typically bright frames don’t suffer from any instances of contrast flicker or loss of detail. The soundtrack, obviously, gives sonic precedence to even the clumsiest instrumental practice, with muttered, halting test lyrics swallowed by even mildly amplified guitars and the jarring thumps of drums that Bobo doesn’t know how to play dynamically. Anyone who’s ever played in a band or hung around one will instantly appreciate how accurately the rehearsal scenes sound.
Magnolia’s disc comes with no extras.
We Are the Best! takes its place among the great punk films as perhaps the only one of its ilk to be purely celebratory of the music’s escapism and inspiration to young misfits.