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REVIEW – We Are The Best! (2013)

August 4, 2014

FilmJuice have my review of Lukas Moodysson’s thoroughly wonderful We Are The Best! Set in 1980s Sweden, the film is a densely-written and realised drama about a group of diffident teenaged girls who spin their feelings of alienation and abandonment into friendship and punk rock. Based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, We Are The Best! is one of those films that renews your trust in the fundamental precepts of world cinema:

The most striking thing about this film is its astonishing density. Not content with providing his audience with a whistle-stop tour of the 1980s punk scene and producing three exquisitely drawn characters, Moodysson unpacks his characters’ motivations and uses them to critique a society that sees little of value in teenaged girls. The film is littered with beautifully quiet scenes in which the girls come up against sexist attitudes and it is in these moments that we are reminded of the central aesthetic principle underlying world cinema: The depth and breadth of human experience is not exhausted by stories about heroic tough guys and mildly depressed middle-class people, so why should cinema limit itself to those types of stories?

Re-watching the film and considering my reaction to it, I was struck by the difference between the vision of Scandinavia presented in this film and the vision of Scandinavia that is presented in the so-called Nordic Noir TV series that are currently proving popular with the British chattering classes. One of the reasons why these TV series are proving so popular is that austerity has pushed British political culture further and further towards the nightmarish individualism of American political culture and the social democracies of Northern Europe are increasingly becoming totemic symbols of what can be achieved when social institutions remain under popular control. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place filled with beautiful people, minimalist interior design and supremely competent police that drive vintage Porsches and wear cooky jumpers? In fact, going by the TV series, Scandinavia is a place entirely devoid of fat or brown people! Despite believing that the state is a more effective and humane means of government than the market, I welcome any film and TV series that critiques the creation of a racially-problematic dreamworld.

We Are The Best! is set in a sports-obsessed Swedish suburb similar to that of Tomas Alfredson’s peerless gothic romance Let The Right One In. In both films, the parents are supremely liberal and the state provides housing and schooling that ensures that no child need ever feel the sting of hunger or the lash of want. 1980s Sweden should have been a paradise on Earth but society’s largesse came an inevitable price tag: Silence. The children in these films are showered with well-meaning attention but a refusal to follow the script and enjoy society’s riches means that they are forced to the margins and denied a vocabulary with which to express their discontent. This is neither Africa nor America… this is socialist Sweden and what could a bunch of middle-class kids possibly have to complain about? While the protagonist of Let The Right One wound up expressing his alienation through an unusual relationship with an intersexual vampire, the protagonists of We Are The Best! reach for a lexicon that is at once more mundane and more universally accessible: Punk rock.

5 Comments
  1. August 6, 2014 12:30 pm

    Excellent review Jonathan, as I said on twitter.I like your points here too on the dream that Scandinavia can represent beyond its borders, stripped of the local countries’ own particular issues and problems.

    That said, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Copenhagen and while racism is a very real issue there, I actually didn’t see very many fat people. I suspect those may be facets of the same underlying force – the insistence on following the script as you put it. Being fat is off message, which isn’t necessarily a huge problem if there are resources to help people avoid being fat. Being brown is also off message, which is much more problematic.

    Being fat, being of a non-Scandinavian ethnicity, being into the wrong sort of leisure activity, it all sounds a bit non-koselig/hyggelig (Norwegian/Danish there).

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  2. August 7, 2014 11:46 am

    Hi Max :-)

    Glad you liked the review.

    You make Scandinavia sound a lot like Switzerland (and I guess both are the products of virtually all-white cultures with limited impact from immigration). Switzerland’s an amazing place if you follow the script then the place is surprisingly civilised and meritocratic but if you reject the script then things can get quite ugly. It’s no surprise that the Far Right does well in these countries as fascism is an expression of rage at a society that doesn’t deliver the goods as promised that falls short of actually calling for the dismantling of the system. They’re angry that they don’t get what they were promised but rather than calling out the system, their rage falls on people who have arrived from outside the system and learned to make the best of the script.

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  3. August 8, 2014 5:18 pm

    I’m very fond of Denmark (in theory at least I could imagine living there), and for that matter Norway, but that doesn’t mean neither society has issues. In a sense though I’m less concerned with their internal issues which are largely a matter for them, as I am with your point about the way we view them from outside and turn them into egalitarian dreamlands where all human problems have been solved. That’s our problem, not theirs, and says troubling things about us rather than them.

    Reminding ourselves that there is no utopia, that we can’t just all move to Denmark and have the world as one, is I think important. We can borrow ideas from the Danes, of course, but if we turn them into a fantasy in a way we actually block that process. In a way fantasising about perfect Scands obviates any need to ask hard questions about whether they have any lessons we could usefully apply here and whether they’ve made any mistakes we could usefully avoid here. The idolisation stops any meaningful conversation.

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  4. August 10, 2014 4:32 pm

    How we giggled and rolled our eyes when the British TV series WALLANDER was broadcast on Swedish TV! Kenneth Branagh and colleagues pretending to be Swedish, struggling to speak Swedish names without sounding off, him saying “Do you realize what you’ve done” (translated from the Swedish admonition “Fattar vad du har gjort!”), the hyper-stylized setting… it was like seeing Sweden being described by extraterrestrials. Great fun!
    :-)

    But it also made me think about the TV versions of countries we were brought up with — TV America, TV Africa, TV Europe, TV Middle East… so many fictions.

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  5. August 10, 2014 5:12 pm

    Oh it’s worse than you think! British TV is now full of regional detective series shot in the same style as Nordic Noir. Apparently Britain is actually a Scandinavian country now, it’s like the Norman invasion never happened!

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