“We Are The Best!” has its Madison premiere Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Tickets are free for museum members and $7 for all others. Not rated, 1:42, three and a half stars out of four.
It would be wonderful if the fictional musicians in Lukas Moodyson’s “We Are The Best!” could go on tour and play some live shows, like the duo from “Once” did. One drawback might be that the bandmates are probably too young to do a world tour. Another hiccup is that they only seem to know one song — and barely that.
But one song can be everything, and proves to be more than enough in Moodyson’s exuberant ode to punk rock and friendship, based on a graphic novel written by his wife . The film is loud and bright, and the gleeful abandon with which the three Swedish middle-school girls attack their instruments and their complicated lives is infectious.
The setting is 1982, and punk is officially “dead.” The school talent show is filled with popular girls Jazzercising to “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, which sets best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) on edge. Both girls live on the fringes of their school’s social fabric, Bobo with her Lennon glasses and quiet, sullen demeanor, Klara with her Mohawk and cheerful disrespect for authority. At the local youth center, on a whim, they steal the band rehearsal space away from their nemeses, teenage-boy heavy metallers Iron Fist, and happily bash away at the instruments. They don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re making noise (and they’re angering Iron Fist, and that’s plenty.)
But then they meet a pious guitar player named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who can really play guitar, and in her own way is just as much of an outsider at school as they are. A band is formed, and the trio hammer out their first song, a gym-class inspired anthem called “Hate the Sport.” (“There are children in Africa dying/But you’re all about balls flying.”)
Moodyson has fun with lyrics like that, where we can’t help but chuckle at these kids’ misguided definition of rebellion. But at the same time, “We Are The Best!” unwaveringly honors their spirit, and the film is invigorating in its love for these three girls and their growing self-assurance. There’s a scene late in the film where they play a show in another town, and angry audience members start throwing stuff at the stage. Apart, the girls might have wilted under the scorn. Together, they seem to feed off it, and Klara hilariously starts ripping the town in her lyrics. It is a great rock ‘n’ roll moment.
Even punk rock can’t protect girls from all the horrors of 13-year-old angst, though, and “Best!” is very honest and moving and showing the travails of those years. The girls have to deal with well-meaning adults who don’t get it, or dismissive schoolmates who ignore them, and of course the ups and downs of friendship, as envy and misunderstandings threaten to scuttle the group. Barkhammar is quietly heartbreaking at times as Bobo, especially when the girls meet a two-boy punk band and the boys seem to like Klara and Hedvig better.
In its evocation of the early ’80s Stockholm middle-school girl punk rock scene, “We Are The Best!” could hardly be more specific. But in its depiction of the joys and sorrows of adolescence, it could hardly be more universal.