There's a scene near the end of Show Me Love, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s first film, that tells everything about the director’s sense of humanity in one short burst, showing that he is a good teacher as well as a swift storyteller, and that what he is teaching is how being human feels (in case we'd forgotten, as well we might have). In the scene, Agnes, one of the film’s lovelorn centerpieces, has just thrown a birthday party, and Viktoria, who is wheelchair-bound, is the only one to show up. Because Agnes is a teenager, and troubled, and angry no one showed up to her party, especially not the girl she is in love with, she makes vicious fun of Viktoria, saying cruel things, as bluntly as only someone her age could say them. Viktoria finally leaves the house, crying. Rather than filming her departure dramatically, Moodysson simply shows us her back, as she wheels along all alone, up a quiet, dark street. One gets the sense that Moodysson knows exactly what it feels like to be Viktoria, in that wheelchair, moving slowly through the dark, cast out, misunderstood. Moodysson understands what it feels like to be hurt. But also how it feels to rise out of that pain: Show Me Love, Together, Lilya-4-Ever and We Are the Best!, within his filmography, all teach what sadness feels like, and show characters’ development as a sort of rumbling around inside that sadness, sometimes escaping, sometimes not. Above and beyond that, though, Moodysson is a skillful teller of women’s tales: Show Me Love is a juvenile lesbian love story, Together the tale of a woman's seeking of refuge within a chaotic commune, and the subsequent Lilya 4-Ever a blisteringly educational journey into the world of sex trafficking. While the reviews of the current film have praised it as “upbeat,” “adorable,” and other such adjectives, for the undeniable cuteness of its three juvenile leads, it is easy to overlook that this filmmaker quickly and effectively takes viewers inside the female experience in a male-centered society, telling how it feels in numerous ways--and has done so throughout his career. We Are the Best! addresses issues timelessly relevant to women with great power and directness—even if the film’s leads are in their preteens. In fact, the youth of these characters makes Moodysson’s points all the more poignant, demonstrating that issues of acceptance and adaptation may start at a very early age.
Let’s start with their looks: the female leads in this film look like boys, and they suffer for it, however indirectly. The film’s spiritual center. Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), has short-cropped hair and often carries herself blockily; when she walks around in her tights, you might easily think she was a boy wearing pajamas around the house. She’s the best actor of the three; Moodysson’s trademark close-ups reveal a thoughtfulness and reflectiveness in her gaze, a silence before she speaks, that’s striking in a film about three schoolmates forming a punk band. Her bandmate, Klara (Mira Grosin), is similarly boyish in appearance, with a cocky mohawk and a raffish aggression that reminds one of the male characters in the film; her emotions are fairly simple ones—happy, sad, confused, without much nuance. The two friends gradually adopt Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), a Christian who also plays classical guitar proficiently, as part of their band—though more classically “pretty,” with long blondish hair, she too has a vaguely blunted quality to her, a sub-verbal affect expected more from a sullen teenage boy than a rocker in a girl band. When the trio interacts with the other girls in their school, all wearing heavy make-up, we realize that the bandmates are foils for the other characters’ more stereotypically “feminine” affectations, and that the film’s sympathies are obvious—the more “popular” girls here seem callous beside the rebellious, more alive protagonists. Ultimately, other children’s ridiculing of the bandmates comes across here as the beating down of the less-attractive by the more-attractive. Male treatment of these girls can be brutal at times; more than once, they are called “ugly,” reinforcing their status as social outcasts—and reinforcing the idea, all too common, of a “typical” female appearance, which doesn’t include cropped hair, boyish features, or mohawks. (At least not in Sweden.) When the girls cut Hedwig’s long blond hair short, the act reads a little bit like an initiation into a post-archaic vision of womanhood.
Moodysson, given his intense sensitivity to female concerns, doesn’t really present male characters comfortably. Here, as in his other films, either they’re brutes or they’re overly gentle—there’s never an excess of subtlety in the characterization. In this film, the receding quality of many of the male characters brings the band members’ attitudes into the foreground. When the girls meet up with another punk-ish band, all male, the boys in the other band, shoegazers par excellence when they’re not playing their instruments, seem like dull knives beside the more fiery protagonists of this film—they make poor conversation, and they’re hopeless as flirts. Whether faking her indifference or not, Bobo dismisses the boys in the band as boring, and her dismissal makes good sociological sense, in this context; in a community not entirely ready to accept the idea of a girl band, what could be more conventional than a group of young boys playing punk, and oafishly? Likewise, male authority figures, like the bumbling supervisors in the rec center where the girls practice, or even Bobo’s father, often seem passive. Bobo’s father is gone a lot of the time; Bobo’s mother sleeps around quite often; his is a sham of fatherhood. Unable to fully command others, or take a stand, the male characters in this film ultimately leave the female characters, regardless of their age, to make their own way, and their own rules, successfully. The film becomes a parody of male dominance.
Near the end of We Are the Best!, as if to top things off, the girls even have to cope with what we would call “mansplaining,” or whatever the Swedish version of it would be, as one of the rec center directors insists on showing off his guitar skills, as a demonstration of proper playing, only to watch Hedwig, who is adept at classical guitar, play circles around him. The scene is not overplayed, and yet, like everything else in the film, it is set up for a highly deliberate purpose. The older men in the rec center don’t have a chance; any disciplinary or authoritative gesture they make can only show their incompetence. It’s to the film’s credit that, despite the simple, straightforward way it develops, it manages to arrive at an ending that shows the girls as successful on their own terms, even if they get a stormy reception, complete with food-throwing. The film, beyond being a girls’ hero-saga, indicates that these characters, these women can live for each other—and in so doing, teaches a little bit, or perhaps a mouthful, about human survival.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.