My first attempt to start a band ended in a group trip to TCBY. But before that, the four of us spent a nerve-wracking almost half-hour in my room, during which I anxiously strummed a few chords, then passed the guitar to my musical partner, the only other kid I knew who would wear a pair of pleather pants in good faith. Let’s call her X.
In addition to a well-developed knowledge of pop-punk, X possessed a certain disdain for the expectations of others. She simultaneously held our field hockey team’s high-scoring record and made it abundantly clear to the rest of us that she could not care less. The coach was appalled, and I was happy to find a friend with such an excellent sense of perspective.
Unfortunately, X’s offensive prowess on the athletic field did not translate into supreme confidence on the guitar, as she turned out to be too nervous to play much in front of the rest of us, i.e., me, Y, and Z, two of my best friends, both of them straight-A students whom I sometimes convinced to follow me to local punk shows in church basements. Neither Y nor Z played an instrument, but one of them was going to sing and the other hoped to someday save up for the cost of a drum kit. None of us had ever written a song, nor did we have any lyrics, but the three of us had chosen a band name and made matching screen names on AOL Instant Messenger. I had recruited the field hockey star at the last minute, convinced that she would be our secret weapon, providing both the artistic vision and the confidence I lacked.
Looking back on it, it is obvious that the band was doomed from the start, and yet, when I remember the feeling I had in that room, surrounded by friends and dreaming of our possible future together, I feel nothing but excitement. For those 20-odd minutes, we were a band, even if all we did on that day was make a bunch of unrealistic plans, give up, and go get frozen yogurt. Considering the inevitable downs and ups of the creative life, it was a nice life lesson about some things not working out as you’d planned, but still having a good time anyway. Which happens a lot, even when you’re in the kind of band that actually plays music.
Optimism, equal parts naïve and wise, is at the heart of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! — an adaptation of his wife Coco Moodysson’s graphic novel Never Goodnight — which follows the lives of three Swedish middle school girls in 1982 who decide to start a punk band, even though they have little to no prior musical experience. This creative endeavor is largely an act of protest against harassment by the boys of the local metal band Iron Fist, who, encouraged by two aging hippie chaperones, have taken over the basement of the local teen center and filled it with unpleasant shredding.
Once the girls have kicked the boys out of the practice space, mohawked rabble-rouser Klara (played by Mira Grosin) immediately seizes the bass and the mic and makes a lot noise, completely unaware that she lacks both rhythmic and melodic sense. Bobo, the moody introvert (played by Mira Barkhammar), is more tentative in her approach. Yet soon enough, she is keeping an almost-steady beat and taking her repressed anger out on the drums, although she’d really rather be playing bass. The two aspiring rockers eventually recruit their hotshot guitarist Hedvig, a devout Christian (played by Liv LeMoyne), and the only one in the band who actually knows how to play, but before that there is a scene of self-discovery powerful enough to send shivers down the spine: the two 13-year-old girls beating the shit out of their instruments and screaming over and over, in rage, sarcasm and glee, a song called “The Prettiest Girls in Town!” Afterwards, there is a beat of silence. Then the girls giggle shyly, as if realizing what they’ve done. And, just like that, they’re hooked.
Over the course of the film, Bobo, Klara and, eventually, Hedvig fight, make up, and commit minor acts of rebellion, including but not limited to starting small fires, playing with knives, and shaving Hedvig’s head, perhaps against her will. As not only punks, but also young girls, they face off against gender stereotypes, pedantic mansplaining, and a boy punk band from the suburbs who are pretty cute, but not cute enough to really tear the girls apart. By the end of the film, the girls have become a team, as Klara learns to compromise, Bobo to speak up, and Hedvig to be herself. Along the way, they pen an anti-conformist anthem, “Hate the Sport,” inspired by a confrontation with their annoying school gym teacher: “The world’s a morgue/but you’re watching Björn Borg!” The reference to the Swedish tennis star aside, “Hate the Sport” is most evocative of the punk classic by 7 Seconds, “I Hate Sports!” and is, perhaps, even funnier. “Hate the Sport” makes its debut in the girls’ first and only show, where they achieve real punk icon status as they are pelted with garbage by a small audience of kids from the town next door. “Communist cunts!” scream the kids from Västerås, as a small riot erupts in the school gym. The band only plays louder, and, in a perfect coup, changes the lyrics to “Hate the Sport” to “Hate Västerås.”
Moodysson knows that punk is silly and yet also necessary. Punk, as Moodysson would have it, represents the imperfect, haphazard, and nevertheless vital creative energy that helps artists connect with ourselves and those around us, be we aging male directors or 13-year-old girls. Due to its association with the individual, punk plays different roles for different characters in the film. While Klara uses punk as the only way she has to say “fuck you” to her artsy, tolerant, and largely sympathetic parents, for Hedvig, the rebellion is more real: discovering her daughter’s new punk rock haircut, Hedvig’s mother nearly calls the police. Yet, although it is a real pleasure to watch the metamorphosis of Hedvig, the oldest of the three girls, from sheltered kid into the obvious leader of the band, we most identify with Bobo.
Bobo retreats into punk as an escape from her home life; her divorced mother is dating again and usually suffering from the kind of heartbreak that requires Bobo to play the parent. Bobo is less confident, less pretty, and a whole lot sadder than her two friends, an outsider among outsiders. She lies midway between the poles of Klara’s rebelliousness and Hedvig’s responsibility. Of the three, she is by far the most interesting to watch; the camera is drawn to the magnets of her small, dark eyes, which dart rapidly from place to place, giving the impression that she sees a whole lot more than she lets on. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Bobo lies on her bed in her striped pyjamas and listens to a Swedish punk record with her headphones. Nothing else happens, but the way the camera lingers on her face is powerful, an expression of the reality of her loneliness, and a mandate that we take the loneliness of this young girl seriously, as seriously as we would had she been someone like Holden Caulfield or any one of our male adolescent archetypes of anomie. As a woman who has frequently retreated from this world into the one in my headphones, I found this scene less sad than validating of my own teenage experience. Growing up, the film seems to say, is a process in which even your loneliness matters.
Recently, Richard Brody of the New Yorker felt compelled to fire off a retort to the movie’s 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Brody accuses Moodysson of portraying a “Shiny Happy, Fake Sweden,” of manipulating the audience to feel such unrealistic feelings as — wait for it — happiness, and of crafting a film about punk that is utterly apolitical, since it fails to tackle any other themes than, well, the lives of it protagonists, all of whom Brody deems excessively “cute.” It is a problem of technique, the critic laments. Why, oh why, Brody wrings his hands, would Moodysson’ camera angles be so criminally close to the girls? Why does only one scene show the sky above them and the city that they inhabit? Where is the cultural context? Why don’t they face any serious oppression from society in their efforts to self-actualize? It must be that the director is a propagandist for social conservatism, forcing upon his audience a kind of closed-minded tunnel vision! Why, the critic moans and groans, does this shitty little punk band permit us to escape, in a not insignificant way, from the laws that govern the rest of the world? Obviously, Richard Brody has never been in a punk band, or else he wouldn’t have to ask.
It is true that watching this film does make you feel pretty damn optimistic. However, Brody’s critique reeks of irony in its assertion that We Are the Best! lacks a political message. It is precisely the tendency of men of this sort to dismiss art that focuses on girls’ and womens’ lives as lesser in vision, in scope, and in seriousness that requires such art to be made. In its close focus on the lives of three young girls and in its utter lack of an outside world, the film gives the audience no choice but to identify with the like of Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig. We may laugh with them, and sometimes even at them, but we may never condescend to them. The adults in the film are portrayed as equally silly, and the more conformist kids are all boring and intolerable, and so there is really no other perspective with which we, as viewers, may align ourselves. The three girls are the point. The fact that we are utterly subsumed in their world is the point. The fact that they have no need of validation from anyone but one another is the point. And with all his talk of technique, Brody completely misses the point; without realizing it, he is pretty much like the chaperone at the youth center who insists that “Iron Fist are the best” just because they can shred.
At almost 30, I’ve already seen a whole lot of movies that tell me how impossible it is to be a person in a female body who just wants to be herself. I don’t need more art that shows me my limits. I’m well aware of those. What I haven’t seen enough of is movies like this one, the kinds of movies that make you believe you can be a woman and an artist and that everything is going to be okay, even though you sometimes feel alone and confused and misunderstood. What I need are more movies where girls just get to do their thing, and, at the end of the day, they grow up, and nothing terrible happens to them. Because it’s magic sometimes just to sit in your bedroom with your best friends and talk about starting a band. Because punk means writing something and putting it out into the world and being really proud of it, even if no one else likes it. Because we are the best; we can give ourselves that permission. Because happiness can be radical, too.