We Are the Best! ★★★★

Here's an autobiographical anecdote: when I was 12-13, I made a few close friends at the small K-8 Catholic school I attended. They were two girls and a boy in the grade below me. They liked watching anime and writing fanfiction; I liked watching anime and writing fanfiction. Suddenly, I was that much less alone. Suddenly, I had friends whose birthday parties I could attend, whose houses I could visit, and in whose company I could spend my heretofore solitary recesses. It was a very powerful change for a very lonely kid. Which is to say that I recognized many of my own experiences in We Are the Best!, sometimes with affection but mostly with discomfort.

The early teenage years it details are ones that everyone has to awkwardly endure (then try to forget), and writer-director Lukas Moodysson (working from his wife Coco's graphic novel) pins down so many of that phase's little torments: the lack of self-awareness, the hesitant forging of an identity, the first stirrings of sexual development, the pervasive self-hatred. (I shuddered with yet more painful recognition every time Bobo gazed in a mirror.) It gets at these phenomena through a string of short, low-stakes vignettes, and though a few dramatic complications arise—a puritanical mom, a cute boy, other mild threats to the band's longevity—We Are the Best!'s deepest interests lie in the empirical experience of friendship. Hanging out, peer pressure, group dynamics: how these girls change and help and hurt each other.

For example, the film puts the girls' artistic collaboration onscreen with unusual sensitivity. Each time they perform their signature song, "Hate the Sport," they become incrementally better; by the end of the film, they're not quite "good" (I mean, this is punk rock) but they have tangibly improved. As the story of their thirteenth years, this is inevitably a record of progress; of things done for the first time. Those landmarks (getting drunk, dating, a botched haircut) may be clumsily achieved, but they still look monumental from a teenager's perspective, and We Are the Best! understands both halves of this duality as equally legitimate.

Using frequent zooms and handheld, Moodysson keeps his camera in the girls' midst, attuned to their naïve energy. As the film rolls along, the bulk of it is given over to ensemble scenes that bounce between Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig as they raise hell in bland 1980s Stockholm. Theirs is a harmless brand of havoc, lightly politicized, yielding reams of first- and secondhand embarrassment. (It's also richly, consistently funny.) Punk may be dead, as one of their classmates insists, but teenage rebellion is eternal—an idea that jibes, incidentally, with my own middle school memories. I loathed gym class, and if I'd been a little more musically inclined, I could see my younger self writing something just as ridiculous and angry as "Hate the Sport."

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