There’s a rich history, from the grit of “Breaking Glass” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” to the gloss and glitter of “Starstruck” and “Josie and the Pussycats,” of great movies about young girls using drive (although not always talent) to pull themselves out of the doldrums with the power of rock and roll. Add to the pantheon the deliriously entertaining Swedish import “We Are the Best!”, a smart little movie that left me with a big, dumb grin on my face.
Adapting a graphic novel by his wife Coco Moodysson about a trio of teen girls in 1982 Stockholm who start their own punk band, writer-director Lukas Moodysson displays the strengths from his best films: like “Together,” this is a period-specific movie that makes the past feel vividly present, and as with “Show Me Love,” he demonstrates a keen ear for the smarts, the restlessness and the yearning of adolescent girls.
People keep telling best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) that punk is dead, but the two of them refuse to believe it; sporting haircuts far shorter and weirder than the New Wave classmates who keep these 13-year-old girls feeling alienated. Making up a band on the spot to kick some heshers out of the rehearsal space at the community center, the two begin clomping their way through learning bass and drums, while rehearsing Klara’s protest anthem, “Hate the Sport.”
It all comes together when Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) joins in; ostracized because of her goody-goody reputation, overt Christianity and classical guitar skills, Hedvig reveals a flash of independence when it turns out that she knows all the words to Bobo and Klara’s favorite song.
There are haircuts, there are clumsy experiments with alcohol, there are brief rivalries over punk boys in the neighboring suburb (the boys insist it’s a free-standing town, thank you very much) and there are any number of thick-headed authority figures and well-meaning but eternally embarrassing parents, but “We Are the Best!” centers around these girls, their friendship and their deliverance from teen angst through the power of punk rock.
Moodysson gets the little moments just right, from the way Bobo rolls her eyes at her mother’s holiday drunken exuberance to the shame and thrill the girl feels over her poorly-hidden crush on Klara’s older brother. We recognize not only their individual growing pains but also the girls’ group dynamic, with Klara being the loud pushy one, bespectacled Bobo the quieter one with the good ideas and Hedvig enjoying being along for the ride for once.
The film climaxes with a gloriously brilliant-slash-disastrous performance that resembles the scene in “This is Spinal Tap” where the band members realize they’ve been booked to play a military dance. But even if their audience doesn’t get why the girls are so great, we do; their enthusiasm and their sense of épater la bourgeoisie is downright infectious.
The three lead actresses are all making their big-screen debuts, and they couldn’t be better. Even if this turns out to be a one-off flirtation with the medium for any or all of them, these characters will live forever among younger movie fans who will aspire to be like Bobo, Klara and Hedvig, not to mention older ones who recognize them as kindred spirits.
You don’t have to like punk rock to fall in love with “We Are the Best!”; if a more joyous film comes along in 2014, then it’s a good year indeed.