It’s assumed that the thorny flowers of punk need rocky, hostile ground to take root. Think of how the gone-to-seed, junkie-littered, class warfare cityscapes of late-1970s New York or Maggie Thatcher’s Britain bred those first mohawked shock troops. But that wasn’t always the case, as Lukas Moodysson’s slight but charming growing-up story We Are the Best! shows. Just as punk could flourish as easily in America’s sprawling, sunny suburbs as its bombed-out cities, its seething fury was also an enticing reaction to the complacent communitarianism of 1980s Sweden. The scrawny kids gelling their hair and scornfully twisting up their faces aren’t just angry about the miserable state of the world, they’re furious that nobody else seems to get it.
In Moodysson’s long-gestating story, taken from a comic by his wife Coco Moodysson, his heroines are stuck in a town where nothing happens and they have no good idea what to do about it. Their stabs at rebellion are mostly limited to imported ideas about hair and clothing, and of course grousing about the conformity of society and internecine debates about infinitesimal details of punk ideology they barely comprehend. Nobody would think that writing songs with lyrics like “the world is a morgue / but you’re watching Bjorn Borg” or looking permanently angry was any great threat to society. But based on the reactions of a couple of their blonde schoolmates, you would think that junior-high best friends Bobo (owlish and watchful Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin, a cocky barnstormer with a mohawk and a mission) were setting the school on fire.
From early on, there’s a mildly depressive feel to We Are the Best!, which seems like the right angle to take on confused, early-adolescent revolt. Much of it stems from the girls’ general inability to truly infuriate anybody. It’s progressive Sweden, after all, and their parents are generally permissive about things; the title, after all, is less the girls’ declaration of awesomeness than it is an ironic gag about their society’s self-satisfaction. It’s a film of minor rebellions and sharp little disappointments (mostly in the love and friendship category) that have a bittersweet comic tang to them, as well as the genuinely chaotic sensibility that should underlie any story about growing up. There are awkward flirtations and friendship battles, but blessedly few tropes from the teen-outcast stock situation drawer.
The one thing that Bobo and Klara truly know, besides their general cussedness and endlessly fractious friendship, is that music is the best escape. Their ramshackle attempt to put a band together at the community center (where, again, the mild-mannered longhairs running the place are infuriatingly nice and supportive) is a slow-motion, atonal shambles further complicated by Bobo’s sighing moodiness and Klara’s flashpan bossiness. The pair does, however, produce one demonstrably solid and hummable anthem, with the perfectly hard-to-argue-with chorus of “Hate the sport / Hate the sport / Hate the hate the hate the sport.” (They don’t dig gym class, you see.) Once they talk their school’s best guitar player, goody-two-shoes Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), into joining, though — Klara declares with typical brio, “We’ll influence her away from God,” before talking her into getting rid of those Jesus-hippie tresses — things improve musically to the point where they could give any number of garage-smashing punk trios a halfway serious challenge. The story starts to breathe more at that point as well, Bobo and Klara’s bickering having long since grown claustrophobic.
Though his camera is jittery and given to attention-getting zooms, Moodysson keeps the mood dialed down throughout. Combined with his energetic though too-green cast, this take results in a film that’s hard to grab on to and slips away even as you’re watching it, much as what happened during his last feature, 2011’s vaporous story of yuppie ennui, Mammoth. Even so, We Are the Best! scrapes, if sometimes a little lazily, for its spiky heroines to be appreciated on their own terms, half-understood though they might be.