If We Are the Best! were The Breakfast Club, Allison would make over Claire—and the boys would just be accessories.
We Are the Best! is Lukas Moodysson’s confection about middle-school punker chicks in early ’80s Stockholm. Klara (Mira Grosin) is the cute, strident one with the cool parents. Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) is the mousy, insecure one who gets to stay over at Klara’s place so her mom can get on-again with her on-again, off-again boyfriend. They roam through their world, tiny splinters of arrogance and neediness, little idiots you’ll quickly come to love.
I admit that I’m predisposed to love Bobo and Klara. Their punk band’s big song is called “Hate the Sport!” and it’s about how terrible gym class is. I’m grinning right now remembering the scenes where they amble around the gym talking to one another when they’re supposed to be running punishment laps; where they give each other terrifying home haircuts spiked with soap; where Bobo gets that teen misery-face, the gut-churning face that says, I messed up and now everything is complicated! I remember all this stuff—this is what it’s like.
We Are the Best! wisely doesn’t get too enamored of its heroines. Their punk band starts only because Bobo and Klara whine that the other kids in the youth center’s practice room are playing too loud. The girls’ mistakes and gaucheries are realistic, and tacky without being unforgivable.
They steal liquor from Klara’s brother, and Bobo gets drunk and pukes on his records. (She’s got a crush on him, too, because when you’re thirteen you always puke on your crush’s records, it’s like you’ve got a homing device.) They deploy the starving children of Africa in an argument about why they won’t play basketball in gym class. There’s boyfriend-stealing, faux begging in the subway, the silent treatment, blatant insults to the audience at their one and only show, and generalized snottiness. There are also sincere apologies, and moments when the girls overcome their bravado to show genuine humility.
Bobo and Klara’s bad side gets explored most interestingly when they decide to add another member to their group: quiet, beautiful Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), a devout Christian. Hedwig is introduced at a school assembly, playing shimmering guitar riffs while the other students boo and catcall. Klara recognizes talent—and also, maybe, wants a chew toy—so they confront Hedwig as she eats lunch alone, and browbeat her into friendship.
Hedwig is a fascinating character: reserved and mature, a peacemaker, but with a fierce “defender of the faith” streak in her as well. She’s strong-willed sometimes, easily-swayed at others, and LeMoyne makes both moods totally organic and believable.
Hedwig’s character shows one of the film’s smartest insights: There’s no such thing as the “submissive personality” or the “rebellious personality.” All three girls are rebels in some ways and conformists in others; and rather than balancing out, these sides of their personalities seem to heighten one another. Bobo seems like Klara’s pet—but she’s the one who starts a secret relationship, and she’s much more in control of her relationship with her mom than Klara is with her parents. Klara’s a “Whaddaya got?” kind of rebel, but only if she gets to run everything. She hates Christians, but stares in wide-eyed awe at Hedwig as she plays in front of the hostile assembly, and works hard to build and keep her friendship with Hedwig.
And Hedwig is tractable—until you directly challenge her religion. She’s soft-spoken, moderate, and sweet—but she also quietly shows up a boastful guitar jock. That disastrous concert scene shows Hedwig in her element: playing the electric guitar in front of an angry crowd, getting shouted down and spat on, never losing her amazing angry, bratty grin.
The harmony between those two scenes of Hedwig in front of the mob—at the school assembly where she’s booed for being a Christian (or maybe just for being a loner), and at the rock show where she’s booed for being a punk (and probably also for being a girl)—reminds me of the most punk-rock element of early Christianity. Some ancient Roman Christians took so-called “humiliating names” or “shameful names,” which included “Proiectus” (exposed, i.e. left to die as an infant) and “Stercorius” (look it up). These names may have been intended as acts of humility, but in their utter rejection of the standards of the world around them, they’re not so far from Johnny Rotten, Poly Styrene, Jello Biafra, Steve Ignorant, and Eve Libertine—among other glorious punk names.
As We Are the Best! shifts away from these questions of rebellion vs. conformity, Christian faith as rebellion, it becomes less fascinating. Still, I loved every minute of it. Moodysson captures that tilting, shivering stage of self-discovery: the petty squabbles, but also the joy—and the friendships that feel as eternal as your own heartbeat.