"Punk is dead, don't you know that?"
That's what the kids in school yell at Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Klara (Mira Grosin), the pair of misfit seventh grade girls in director Lukas Moodysson's We Are The Best. Since the film is set in 1983 Stockholm, Sweden, we, the audience, know that Bobo and Klara are right and their schoolyard taunters are wrong. Punk would die and be reborn many times in the next 30 years. But from the girls' perspective, sitting in a freshly scrubbed, urban social democracy, surrounded by cookie cutter normals and sneering metalheads, it looks true. But that doesn't stop them from picking up the punk mantel and doing their self-imposed duty of keeping the music, and the attitude, alive.
The film opens on Bobo's divorced mother's 40th birthday party. In true punk fashion, everyone around her is having fun but Bobo, a pouty, plain-looking 14-year-old in frail round glasses whom, everyone notes, has just cut her hair short. She just wants to be left alone in her room to listen to her favorite bands, like Mongo and the Incest Brothers.
Bobo's bestie Klara, on the other hand, has both parents and a set of brothers and sisters who bicker and argue constantly. Klara has gone a little further down the punk path, already sporting a mohawk and an inherited record collection courtesy of her older brother, Linus (Charlie Falk) a former punk who views his little sister's rebellion with a combination of wry amusement and loving, not-quite condescension.
Linus' view of the girls most closely resembles Moodysson's take on the story, which is an adaptation of his wife's graphic novel memoir Never Goodnight. Barkhammer and Grosin give tremendous performances, especially considering they are both first-time actors. But Moodysson maintains a safe distance, visualizing their world not as they see it, but as we see it looking back from the 21st century. When someone asks Klara what her band's one song "Hate Sport" is about, she answers "We hate sports, and we want others to hate it as well." It's a laugh line, but it's delivered with the same deadpan Scandinavian earnestness as her answer to the next question, "What is punk about?"
"Standing up for the weak."
Klara and Bobo's band starts almost by accident. While building a "nuclear meltdown" sculpture for an art class, they are bullied by a bunch of older boys in a metal band named Iron Fist. But when they discover that Iron Fist has neglected to sign up on the calendar for the youth center practice space, they hijack their practice by claiming to have a band of their own. It's the first of many off-the-cuff poses that slowly turn into reality for the girls. They're turned down for the school's fall talent show, but when they see a talented young guitarist named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne, another first timer) they decide to recruit her into the band, despite the fact that she is a straight-laced Christian. Hedvig accepts their invitation ("I hate sports too!" she says before teaching them to sing the song in key.), but the culture clash with her devout family is more profound than either Bobo's or Klara's. When they attempt to play a song called "Hang God," Klara calmly explains to Hedvig that "It's a Christian song. If he didn't exist, you couldn't hang him."
The plot arcs through some familiar territory, as the girls learn to play together in the band, confront their philosophical differences, and fight over a boy in another punk band (whose one song is called "Reagan/Breshnev") on their way to a climactic appearance at Santa Rock where they once again confront their nemesis Iron Fist. But it's the details of the journey that matter in this good-natured film. Bobo, Klara, and Hedwig's story of Sweden's finest teenage girl punk band will feel universal to everyone who has ever set out to prove that punk won't die on their watch.