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I had the sort of middle school experience that led me to believe that if someone enjoyed their middle school experience, then they’re obviously an asshole. Sure, my time between sixth and eighth grade was typical: I was incredibly awkward, for one thing, and my relationships with friends/family were fraught with lies and weird arguments. Nowadays I’m thankful I made it out of there, which is why I watched parts of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best with my hands covering my eyes. The Swedish comedy may include feel-good moments, yet its thirteen year-old heroes are so true-to-life that I stopped thinking critically and squirmed in my seat.

Set in Stockholm in the early 1980s, there are the usual teenage cliques, except with a heightened sense of alienation. None of the characters had the internet as a resource, both in terms of knowledge and kindred spirits, so it took guts to be different. Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and her best friend Klara (Mira Grosin) stand out because they’re trying to be punk rock: Bobo prefers closely cropped spiky hair, while Klara sports a mohawk. Classmates mock them in a gently condescending way, and they’re embarrassed by their parents. Their only solace in a neighborhood rec center, and even that is ruined by some dudes who use a rehearsal space for their power metal band. In order to piss off the dudes, Bobo and Klara start their own band and book the space. They’re terrible, obviously – they flat-out can’t play – so they recruit the help of the quiet-but-talented Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne). Slowly but surely the band sounds tolerable, yet the trappings of middle school keep getting in the way of their artistic vision.

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Moodysson films We Are the Best as if his camera operator is a hyperactive bystander. There are dozens of moments where the camera heightens the anxiety by zooming in on one character, then shifting suddenly to another outside the frame. This creates the sense that we’re eavesdropping, which adds to the authenticity of every sincere conversation (the cinematography fills the frame with pastels, as if the director is mocking all attempts to be punk). It is painful to watch Bob and Klara because they lack the experience and emotional intelligence to understand what they’re feeling, which is a shame since they’re also learning about boys. There’s a running gag where Bobo half-seriously brings up her fondness for Klara’s sister, while Klara keeps saying how he’s so gross (she protests that he’s no longer punk rock because he likes Joy Division). There’s all this emotion bubbling underneath the surface of every scene, and Moodysson steadfastly avoids small epiphanies in favor of authenticity. Bobo and Klara achieve tiny rebellions, yet We Are the Best is anything but a feel-good romp.

While the band’s blossoming talent his the usual beats, the minor characters are given room to breathe and develop. There’s a terrific sub-plot involving Bobo’s single mother: she’s lonely and looking for another man, and Bobo understands her mother’s desire up to a point. Then there are some older punk rock boys, both of whom look like they belong at Buzzcocks show, and they are both sensitive/clueless about how to talk to girls. Still, the richest sub-plot is the introduction and assimilation of Hedvig. She starts as a goodie-two-shoes, a God-loving guitarist who’s too mousy to merit attention. While Bobo and Klara initially exploit Hedvig for her musical talent, it rewarding to see how she transitions from outsider to an integral part of the group. Power dynamics are always shifting, whether it’s because of ego or a perceived slight, but Moodysson’s overarching point is how friendship and defiance are more powerful forces than hormones.

Aside from references to Brezhnev and Reagan, We Are the Best is a perfect movie for teenagers. Thirteen year-olds may shut down when they watch the travails of kids who use adult words without fully understanding what they mean, while older kids have a strong enough sense of identity to realize they’ll (probably) never have to endure those situations again. This kind of energetic comedy would be catastrophe without complete performances, and it’s to the credit of the young cast that I cannot imagine them as anything else. Barkhammar, Grosin, and LeMoyne do not act like typical teenage protagonists; they’re too weird and smart for that. Moodysson does not ruin the story of these girls with unearned poignancy or tragedy. They are going to be just fine, so We Are the Best is about how they slowly but surely realize that about themselves.

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