With its buzzing punk rock music and spunky, spiky adolescent heroines, "We Are the Best!" sends many audiences out of the theater on a wave of rambunctious high spirits.
Set in early-'80s Stockholm, the film opens with young Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), social outcasts and self-styled punk rockers, hassling with their parents and at school. Without knowing how to play a single note, the girls decide to start a band and soon enlist the classical guitar-playing loner Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) to join them. As all manner of obstacles and complications get in their way — teachers, parents, talent, boys, inspiration, jealousy — their combined efforts lead to a raucous public debut.
The film, opening May 30 in Los Angeles, is a celebration of friendship, music and discovery with an upbeat, playfully anti-authoritarian spirit. Just don't call it a feel-good movie.
"Feel-good movie is something that I've never gotten," said director Lukas Moodysson, 45, during a recent phone call from his home in Malmö, Sweden. "I think it's a group of young people who are sort of neglected and forgotten, they have some small but real obstacles in life, but they survive everything. So I thought it was a film about possibilities, finding the ways to be happy even though people spit at you and say that you're ugly."
If contemporary Scandinavian cinema is often know for the aggression of Denmark's Lars von Trier or Nicolas Winding Refn, the film marks a return of what may be its gentlest soul. It's the first in nearly five years from Moodysson, who first burst onto the international scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a filmmaker of great empathy and humanist generosity, exploring the lives of young people with the teen lesbian romance "Show Me Love," the commune comedy "Together" and the devastating sex trafficking drama "Lilya 4-Ever."
After the confrontational and experimental "A Hole In My Heart" and "Container," Moodysson made an ambitious but indifferently received English-language debut in 2009 with "Mammoth." Starring Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal, the drama attempted to calculate the real costs of modern global commerce, how it both connects and divides people of different nationalities and economic classes.
Since the debut of "We Are the Best!" at the Venice Film Festival last fall, where Variety declared it "eccentric, authentic and utterly delightful," Moodysson's new film has been heralded as a return to form for the director, seeming to put him back on track.
"I've always said I'm not really a positive person, I don't make positive movies, but I make optimistic movies," he said. "Which is for me slightly different. Positive is sort of seeing everything in a golden light and everything is happy and everything is fun. Optimism is different. You can have a very negative viewpoint on things going on in the world and still be optimistic."
In the time since making "Mammoth," Moodysson published two novels in Sweden, one dealing frankly with the death of his father. He published his first book at only 17, and so when he became disaffected with filmmaking, unsure of what to do next, it was natural for him to return to writing.
"The production of 'Mammoth' was quite tiresome, shooting in three continents. I thought he just needed a break from films," said producer Lars Jönsson, via email, who has worked with Moodysson on all of his feature films. "Lukas has been mixing filmmaking with writing poetry and novels all through his career."
Then one day Moodysson walked into the kitchen and told his wife that he wanted to make a film of her autobiographical graphic novel. "It was as simple as that," said Coco Moodysson, 44, who has published numerous graphic novels and a young adult novel, in a separate phone call. "I was really glad for him. I like to work with these characters, and I was happy for him that he was going to spend time with them and be in the world of these girls."
He adapted her book as he might any other, cutting and reshaping the story to work as a film, adding some elements that were not true to Coco's life but true to the spirit of the story. He also added in anecdotes from Coco not included in the book but that he had heard from his wife through the years.
"We didn't sit down and talk about it," said Lukas Moodysson of the adaptation. "She gave me a free hand to do what I would do. But it was collaboration in that she did her part first and I did my part after. It really feels like our film even though I made it."
Of the three young leads, Grosin had previously appeared in a short film, but both Barkhammar and LeMoyne make their screen debut in "We Are the Best!" Moodysson allowed the girls at times to improvise to heighten the film's bubbly, natural feel. The film also captures the specific moment of the early '80s, with a soundtrack filled with Swedish punk bands from the time, such as KSMB and Ebba Grön.
For Coco Moodysson, the reemergence of Lukas onto the international filmmaking scene feels part of the ongoing continuity of the way they live and work together. "We're just sitting here in a little corner of the world and we make things, books and films, and what happens to them, the response, is something else," she said. "When people say 'it's a return' I'm like 'OK, but we've been making things all the time.' It's not like that for us, that's something you see from outside."
Both Lukas and Coco Moodysson are active on the online micro-blogging platform Tumblr, engaging in a youthful fandom for fountain pens, figure skating, Rihanna, Kristen Stewart and horseback riding. Lukas recently posted a photo of his new tattoo of an anchor in the same spot where Miley Cyrus has a similar one.
The couple have two sons, ages 18 and 15, and their 10-year-old daughter appears briefly in the new film, but Lukas' interest in youth culture and the power of simply liking things seems to go well beyond keeping up with his kids. It is as if as he ages he somehow gets younger, more open-minded and exploratory.
"I think I have a little bit of a problem relating to being 45," he said. "I don't have a problem with getting older, it's just that I feel much older than 45 and at the same time much younger. So I feel like I'm 25 and 70."
Moodysson doesn't intend to avoid filmmaking as long this time. Though he is reluctant to go into much detail on his next project — "It's going to be about grown-ups" is the most he'll allow — it does seem the enthusiastic spirit of "We Are the Best!" has reenergized something inside himself.
"It was fun to make this one," he said. "I was in tears the last day of the shoot; I told the team they had given me back the joy of making films."