Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s sure-to-be crowd-pleasing new film “We Are The Best!,” screening at SPACE Gallery on Monday, is a lot of things – coming-of-age story, a tale of female friendship and solidarity, a rock movie. But most gratifyingly, it’s a return to early form for Moodysson, a filmmaker whose first films were some of the most perceptively warm and humanistic anywhere, but whose more recent output has tipped over into soul-crushing bleakness.
“We Are The Best!” resembles nothing so much as Moodysson’s first film, “Show Me Love,” a lovely, funny and generous-hearted love story about two very different small-town Swedish girls who find the escape they’re seeking in each other. Set in 1983 Stockholm, “We Are The Best!” finds seventh-grade outcast best friends Bobo (watchful, bespectacled Mira Barkhammar) and vocal, impulsive Klara (bright-eyed Mira Grosin) bonding over their outsider status, self-chopped haircuts, and defiant love of punk music, which has begun to wane in their peers’ estimation. (They stare in disbelief at a school dance recital set to The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”) Declaring themselves a punk band, largely to spite the mean boys playing loudly at the local teen center, the girls quickly recruit another outcast, the quiet, religious Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) when they see her defiantly perform a classical guitar number in front of braying classmates at the same talent show. And so, with one member who knows how to play an instrument, a broken down bass and drum set, and all the attitude a trio of just-teenaged girls can muster, the girls forge an unlikely friendship which is as sweet, rude, and funny as any in recent memory.
Moodysson’s followup to “Show Me Love” was the equally charitable “Together,” about a disparate group of adults living in a modern-day commune. There, too, the director’s view of people was clear-eyed but generous, finding sympathy for everyone, even as they screwed up. After that, in the heart-wrenchingly bleak teen prostitution drama “Lilya 4 Ever” and the even more hopeless pornography drama “A Hole In My Heart” (never available in America), Moodysson seemed to have gazed too far over the edge and decided that the world is just too unforgiving of human weakness for anything like a happy ending. Thankfully, “We Are The Best!,” while maintaining the director’s edgy immediacy (it’s shot largely hand-held), looks into the lives of Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig and not only forgives their youthful errors, but loves them for them. I did too.
A running theme in Moodysson’s work is how precarious the world can be for young women. And while this film never spills over into the darkness his more recent films have, that undercurrent of unease informs every aspect of “We Are The Best!” The girls’ simmering resentment (over unhappy home lives, jerk boys, judgmental peers and condescending adults) is what draws them to each other – and to the raw, exuberant protest of punk music. And, as they navigate the traps of being young and inexperienced, their growing solidarity is absolutely winning, especially in the hands of the three remarkable young actresses. Based on a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco, the film treats its protagonists without sentimentality but with complete sympathy – the lessons they learn as they try find their musical voice (with hilarious accuracy, their first song is about how stupid sports are) aren’t hammered home, but are more striking because of it. (After Bobo and Klara get in trouble for urging the conventional Hedvig to cut her hair like theirs, their confrontation ends with Klara exclaiming, “Learn to say no when you don’t want something!”) And their final response to a provincial audience’s abuse at their first public performance is about as punk as you can get – while remaining hearteningly, movingly sweet. As rambunctious as they get (watch the closing credits), the girl rockers of “We Are The Best!” are utterly, defiantly loveable. So’s the movie (watch the trailer).
NICKELODEON CINEMA, Portland | www.patriotcinemas.com
Friday: “Obvious Child.” SNL’s Jenny Slate is getting raves for her performance in this controversial, unconventionally smart romantic comedy about a young woman who decides to have an abortion after a one night stand threatens her career plans.
THE STRAND THEATRE, Rockland | www.rocklandstrand.com
Sunday: “Maine Masters Series.” Head up to Rockland to check out these three short film’s about Maine artists, including “Jon Imber’s Left Hand” about acclaimed, recently deceased Maine painter Imber.
FRONTIER, Brunswick | www.explorefrontier.com
Sunday: “Walking The Camino.” Director Lydia B. Smith took her camera and walked the 500 mile path of the legendary Spanish pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela traveled by thousands of the faithful every year. Followed by a Q&A by the director.