There’s a stage of early teenage life when even one’s most banal self-expressions seem worthy of an exclamation point, but Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!,” an eccentric, authentic and utterly delightful evocation of that very period — in Stockholm, circa 1982 — more than merits its own. In fact, it could do with three: one for each of the fierce-yet-fragile 13-year-old femmes at this lively pic’s center, who form a punk trio (just don’t call them a girl band, they plead) to vent their litany of middle-class problems. Audiences who responded to the light touch and warm communality of Moodysson’s breakthrough features “Show Me Love” and “Together” will thrill to this sweet, spirited return to form, as should plenty of newer, younger converts.
Now seven features into his career, Moodysson never exactly went away — pricklier projects like 2009’s Michelle Williams-starring “Mammuth” have much to offer the patient — but it did seem as if the humane inclusiveness that was his initial trademark curdled somewhat as he approached middle age. That quality is back with reinforcements in “We Are the Best!”: Adapted from a semi-autobiographical, Daniel Clowes-style graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco, it’s the rare film about adolescence that doesn’t seem exclusively targeted either to teens or to adults.
Rarer still, it’s one that takes an interest in the nourishing qualities of female friendship. Coming-of-age cinema is strewn with rose-tinted tales of young male bonding; girls, on the other hand, get little between the polarities of “Mean Girls” bitchiness and syrupy Disney Channel wish fulfillment. It’s an unavoidable pity that subtitles will keep this from many non-Scandi youngsters who may find it inspiring.
Not that this frequently rowdy comedy looks, feels or sounds anything like an Afterschool Special — or that its precocious protags like to think of themselves as “girls,” with their cultivated androgynous styling and defiant resistance to stereotype that occasionally plants them, quite obliviously, into another type of conformity. Happily, portraying naivete without condescension is a tricky balance that Moodysson pulls off in one scene after another.
The film begins chiefly as a two-hander, establishing the deep friendship between tomboyish middle-schoolers Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) through a sequence of simple, relatable vignettes, as they mutually gripe about their embarrassing parents, scowl through gym class and, despite no obvious musical ability on the part of either child, found a somewhat understaffed garage band. Well, the Sex Pistols got away with less.
Though they’re regarded as an indistinguishable pair of freaks by bullying classmates, the differences between the girls are immediately apparent. Self-reliant, bespectacled Bobo — the daughter and guardian of a flaky single mom (Anna Rydgren) — is both smarter and less assertive than Klara, a mouthy, mohawk-wearing young terror. One girl has a more informed idea of what they’re rebelling against, while the other enacts her rebellion far more stridently. It goes without saying that Klara assumes lead-singer duty in the band without a moment of consultation.
Sensibly deciding that they need at least some informed musical influence, Bobo recruits another classmate, skilled classical guitarist Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), after seeing her play at a school talent show. Shy, willowy and soon-to-be-beautiful, Hedvig is an outcast for different reasons, socially inhibited by her stringently Christian parents. Initially somewhat bewildered by the others girls’ advances, she swiftly realizes that solicited friendship is better than none. As the girls bond and occasionally squabble over matters ranging from haircuts to nascent notions of feminism and political activism, their initially hopeless band takes on a rough kind of stage presence. Impressed with the girls’ progress, their school music teachers offer them a spot at a community-center Christmas concert — the only fixed destination point in the film’s otherwise casually episodic narrative.
The gig provides a rousing, riotous climax to proceedings, though many older viewers may find that the chief emotional weight of the story lies in imagining the girls’ lives beyond that point. Touchingly devoted as they are to each other, it’s not hard to spot the faultlines on which their friendship could eventually crack: An encounter with a young, all-male punk band, in particular, uncovers gaps in emotional maturity between the girls that could widen in later years. Beautifully conveying this subtext under Moodysson’s unimpeachably sensitive hand, all three young actresses — who range in age from 11 to 14 — are aces, with extra credit to LeMoyne for her gorgeous, folk-style singing and playing.
The early-1980s setting is essential to the girls’ musical and political identities, and Moodysson and his design team have fun with the decade that good taste forgot: A simple shot of fishsticks being warmed up in a pop-up toaster is a typically telling visual detail. There’s a Polaroid softness to Ulf Brantas’ lensing, while interiors and costumes alike pop with clashing colors and textures, but the film steers just clear of camp in this department: Linda Janson and Paola Holmer’s production design is particularly perceptive, marking differences in social status by showing just how much of the 1970s lingers in different households.
Music supervisor Rasmus Thord, obviously, has a ball with the material, though there’s nothing on the soundtrack quite as catchy as an artless original ditty titled “Brezhnev and Reagan, Fuck Off!” Who said punk is dead?