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You couldn’t pay me to be 13 again, but if some unthinkable vortex were to suck me back to that terrible age, at least I’d have Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! to shore me up until I found my way out. Now, when I’m far from my teens, the 2013 film has leapt onto my all-time list; and if it were up to me, it would be required viewing for newly minted teens, and the adults they become. Because We Are the Best! is a clarion call to embrace the things that make you you and to band together with your peeps—even if you number no more than two or three—to raise a righteous middle finger to anyone who questions your prerogative to live as you like.
Bobo (quiet, spectacled, and serious) and Klara (mohawked, bright-eyed, and brash), are ready to rebel—only child Bobo is forced to play adult to her flighty single mom, while Klara needs a way to burn off her roiling reserves of adolescent energy. Too bad they’re stranded in the transitional stagnation that is 1982 Stockholm, where the blondies at school dance in aqua spandex to the Human League and even Klara’s dreamy older brother Linus has betrayed his punk-rock salad days. “He only listens to Joy Division” Klara complains, “and he even knew Mongo in Incest Brothers.” That leaves the pair to listen to their Walkmen in solitude and thumb wistfully through ’zines, until a night at the local youth center when a prime opportunity arises to annoy the fuck out of their nemeses, the older-boy metal band Iron Fist, and Bobo and Klara’s own outfit is born. Neither actually plays an instrument, but Christian girl Hedvig (steady, strong and patient) plays a mean classical guitar and, hey, she doesn’t have any friends either.
Writer-director Moodysson, who based his film on the graphic novel Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson (the two are married), was a poet before he took up filmmaking, and We Are the Best! is guided by a genius for left-field details—a cut on the hand that leads to bonding, Bobo’s don’t-move stillness as Linus shows her how to spike her hair—that breathe life into a deceptively spare plotline and let the young actors relax into their roles. The film is frequently, achingly hilarious: that Human League dance number will make your day, and even the girls laugh out loud at the clueless mansplainers who run the youth center. But if it also features its fair share of heart-rending moments, including a crusher brought on by two punk boys from the ’burbs, they’re cushioned by the knowledge that Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig have spun a protective cocoon around themselves to keep out the worst until they’re ready to fly. And oh, how they fly.
A fervent progressive and committed Christian, Moodysson is nonetheless far from dogmatic, and this film is very much a companion piece to his essentially perfect 2000 movie Together, in which the members of a ’70s commune learn that ideology only goes so far when it comes to real human life. It’s a point Moodysson clearly wants to get across, and the beauty of We Are the Best! is in the organic, playful way Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig learn that punk, with its own rules and conventions, is their springboard not their anchor, and that true freedom comes from their love for and acceptance of each other, and maybe even the world beyond.