We Are the Best!

Punk rock girls! The three happiest words in the English language. Maybe in Swedish, too. You get that impression from We Are the Best!, the latest film from writer-director Lukas Moodysson, which celebrates the sheer exuberance and innocent try-anything spirit of 13-year-olds figuratively detonating the world around them for the first time in their lives.

Now 45, the onetime enfant terrible of Scandinavian cinema – once seen as the heir apparent to Lars von Trier – has set off a few aesthetic explosions of his own, and suffered some bombs as well. He’s arrived at middle age, already having endured a midlife crisis: a withdrawal from the movie business in the depressing wake of making 2009’s Mammoth, a relatively big-budget ($10 million) international drama with real movie stars (Michelle Williams, Gael Garcia Bernal) that the Guardian dismissed as “a fatuous, self-serving and fantastically dishonest exercise in pseudo-compassion.”

Moodysson, who wrote two novels in his time away from the screen, was lured back into the game by his wife Coco’s graphic novel, a memoir that touched in part on her days as a teenaged punk rocker. “She’s Bobo in the movie,” says Moodysson, occupying a comfy sofa in his publicist’s apartment at the Toronto Film Festival last fall. “I didn’t want it to be completely about her.” The director’s #TBT-style creative redemption, We Are the Best! follows the (very loosely orchestrated) adventures of Bobo and her best friend Klara, middle-class Stockholm kids who start a punk band with all the trimmings (literally, they chop their hair into fearsome buzzcuts and mohawks) and tatters. Since neither can play a lick, they aggressively recruit a fellow outcast, Hedvig – a pretty blonde and devoted Christian who happens to play classical guitar like a virtuoso.

The year is 1982.

“I was quite close to where the girls in the film are,” recalls Moodysson, whose films have swung with the implication of his name, from brilliant social comedy (Together) to searing portraits of teen prostitution (Lilya 4-Ever). “I was listening to the same kind of music, trying to have the same kind of clothes, and failing of course, because you don’t really look how you want to look. I grew up in a small place. They live in Stockholm and I grew up in a small suburban place outside of Malmo. That was a big difference. The film is quite close to Coco’s childhood. She was tougher than I was. I was bit more shy and scared of things.”

From the sound of it, Moodysson wasn’t much of a punk. But you have to admire his gumption. “You weren’t allowed to get in [to clubs] when you were 12 or 13 years old,” he says. “You were told to sit in the back. You were told that if someone from the authorities came around and saw you they would close the place. They never came, so …”

As always with a Moodysson film, there is a social dimension that is both specifically Swedish and also forms part of the story’s backbone. It’s evident here in the largely peripheral role played by the parents of the girls, whose collective rite of rock ’n’ roll passage is a largely private endeavor conducted in bedrooms and community center rehearsal halls … before it erupts into delirious climactic mayhem. “The punk movement in Sweden had a lot of different groups,” Moodysson explains. “Some that were more political, that were more about destroying things. The thing about these kids, and this is something that you will recognize if you are Swedish, but they come from a very specific left-wing background, which in 1982 was fading out a little bit. I’m not sure if this translates well to other countries, but in a way it’s about the dying out of that parent generation: How they went from very political and then after awhile got older and more tired and forgot about their children.”

At some point, I make a joke about how the film’s untethered joy feels like such a relief coming after some of the director’s other efforts. This prompts an unexpected bit of testifying that suggests deeper motivations – and that, perhaps, people have misunderstood Moodysson’s gloomier works. “What is important is to try at least to talk about serious things and never be cold,” he says. “There are too many cold films. I don’t care if they talk about dark things but I just don’t like coldness. Most films that I see that are sort of serious in any kind of way, I think they are too cold. I rarely feel that the director or the writer loves their character much. They don’t care about them enough. I really have to like the characters because otherwise you would kill yourself. If you don’t believe in human beings then why continue living?

“It’s so easy,” he continues. “We should make complex and intelligent movies that still have warmth and optimism. Optimistic movies without intelligence are terrible but pessimistic movies are even worse. “

The most encouraging aspect of Best! is, of course, its unabashed DIY spirit, something the film aims to translate as empowering for an underage audience – which it never condescends to. “Many of the films made about childhood aren’t really aimed at a young audience,” Moodysson says. “In Sweden, we have made quite a lot of films aimed at a young audience that take young people seriously and without the nostalgia of things. I don’t know about this film. Maybe it will have a very old audience. But I’m hoping it will reach the young people in Sweden, too. The few young people that have seen it really liked it.”

Although the filmmaker helped to write lyrics for the girls’ performance of their hilarious punk anthem in the film – “Hate the Sport” – they played their own instruments, for better (Liv LeMoyne, who plays Hedvig, can really jam on the classical guitar) or worse (“When they walk into the rehearsal room for the first time that’s the way it was …”). Even though these are 2014 kids portraying something close to their own parents at their age, there’s something beyond nostalgia going on, something about the beauty of refusal and identity and doing your own damn thing that Walt Whitman would understand as easily as Cyndi Lauper.

“There are some things the girls say and do and the way they interact with the world that for me are inspirational, how they question everything and how they don’t want to fit in and they want to build their own little world … and not look pretty,” Moodysson says. “It’s partly about what it’s like to be a girl in a world where everybody wants girls to be pretty, and growing up and wanting to be something completely different and not wear make up and bang the drums really hard.”