I have a deep dislike for movies about bands. The mockumentaries The Rutles and This is Spinal Tap notwithstanding, most fictionalized films about bands fail to capture the essence of the experience, leaving the musicians in the audience frustrated with the lack of realism. The worst of the lot (Rock Star, That Thing You Do) romanticize rock stardom to the point of ridiculousness. Even the good ones (Almost Famous, School of Rock) spiral into schlocky nostalgia or feel-good boosterism. Or both.
But the new Swedish film We Are the Best! falls into exactly none of those traps. Based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, and directed by her husband, Lucas, We Are the Best! follows outcasts Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Clara (Mira Grosin) as they navigate the treacherous social hierarchy of seventh grade. Bobo is a boyish bookworm, and Clara is a mohawked atheist. Neither has the desire or the social skills to relate to their classmates, so they adopt the attitude of their favorite punk bands, further alienating potential friends.
When hanging out at a youth center, they decide to form a band — Bobo on drums, Clara on bass. They are awful, but their song “Hate the Sport,” a diatribe against athletics, organized religion and the established social order, becomes their emotional outlet. When they pick up classical guitarist Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), the picture is complete. They are still awful, but a structure to the music and a deep friendship among the three soon emerge.
The beauty of We Are the Best! is that it’s less about the band and the music, and more focused on the people, those kids whose parents don’t understand them and whose schoolmates despise them. They form a bond through their music, which really is the essence of what a band is — or should be.
It was interesting how my wife and I reacted differently to the film. I became nostalgic (yes, weepingly so) for my middle-school years, when I was putting together my first bands. We played horribly but with passion, and we forged friendships that endured the inevitable breakups. My wife, on the other hand, commented on how well the movie depicted relationships between adolescent girls — the pull of wanting to be accepted while trying to forge your own path, the longing for independence while still needing to be loved and accepted by your family, the troubling fissure that occurs when two of you like the same boy.
Both of these interpretations are represented in a short but touching scene during which Bobo is feeling down on herself after vomiting on a stack of Clara’s brother’s records. She’s secretly in love with the older boy, but having gotten drunk at a party he is hosting and upchucking on his albums, Bobo is devastated. Lying in bed in Clara’s arms after the party, she challenges her friend, ”Say one thing good about my life,” to which Clara responds, “You’re in the world’s greatest band.” She follows that up with, “You have a friend that really likes you. Two friends, actually.”
Don’t go see We Are the Best! expecting the climactic Battle of the Bands sequence that closes School of Rock. There is a similar story arc, but the ending of We Are the Best! is so much more satisfying — and believable.