With her long hair and angelic face, 14-year-old Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) could easily be taken for one of the popular blond Barbies at her Swedish middle school. But she eats lunch alone, marginalized by her talent as a classical guitar player (she’s always booed at the annual fall talent show) and by her reputation as a practicing Christian.
Self-styled outsiders Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are a little freaked out by the whole faith thing, too. But the 13-year-olds befriend Hedvig with recruitment in mind: they want her to teach them how to play musical instruments, and to join their punk band. “If she won’t stop being a Christian,” Klara reasons, “we’ll kick her out.”
In the charming and spirited We Are the Best!, the latest from writer-director Lukas Moodysson (Together, Lilya 4-Ever), it’s 1982 Stockholm. Punk rock is newly dead. But that little accident of history won’t slow down Bobo and Klara, who’ve cut their own hair short (spikes, a Mohawk) in emulation of their sneering musical heroes. (The haircuts actually make them adorable, but nobody has the bad manners to tell them this.)
The movie doesn’t give easy, fake reasons for the girls’ need to make noise, literally. All three have interesting, sometimes problematic relationships with their parents, but their home lives are generally nurturing. They aren’t the most popular kids in school, but they’re not trying to be — that’s sort of their point. We Are the Best! gains the universal from the specific; their interest in punk is almost beside the point. The movie captures the gleeful, unstoppable energy of young teens discovering who they are, swearing like jailbirds and exploring the parameters of what feels like their boundless personalities and potential.
Meanwhile, they pretend to hate the world they’re just starting to understand and love. Sample lyrics, from their song ridiculing the insignificance of school sports in the face of nuclear threat, famine and wars: “People die and scream / But all you care about is your high-jump team.”
Funny, yes, but the characters’ sincerity is deeply endearing. Each of the girls is distinct and fully formed: the sly rule-breaker Klara; the somber, self-critical Bobo; the sensitive and nurturing Hedvig. As in previous films, director Moodyson shows a distinct talent with young actors, drawing strong, fresh performances from each of his three leads. That’s a good thing, since the whole thing rests almost completely on their narrow shoulders.
The movie goes to places we expect. For instance, when a couple of boys enter the plot, you know competition, jealousy and cat fights may be just around the corner. What’s wonderful about We Are the Best! is that it heads toward familiar plot points, then surprises us by having most situations resolved by the sweet, giggly resiliency and solidarity of these three girls. This is a lovely portrait of friendship.
It’s probably a good thing that these characters will grow up into the Swedish university system, rather than America’s. That’s the response you might feel after watching the documentary Ivory Tower.
Andrew Rossi’s well-meaning film takes on an increasingly important subject — the stunning inflation of college tuitions and its implications, not only for financially strapped graduates but also for the identity of American higher education as an affordable, democratic tool of advancement. But in trying to cover too many ideas with too little depth, Tower lacks the urgency and focus it needs.
Part of the movie is a comparative study of different types of universities — so-called party schools like Arizona; interesting models like Deep Springs, the free, two-year, all-male work-and-study program on a California ranch; the venerable Harvard; Atlanta’s own, vital Spelman. Another part of the movie is an examination of the ways universities, in their competitive drive to attract students, have made enrollment costs prohibitive because of the focus on providing expensive state-of-the-art facilities and perks (sports arenas, luxury dorms, swimming pools and tanning beds, gourmet cafeteria meals). The quality of the education, increasingly, seems like an afterthought.
The movie includes a lively mini-drama (and some of its most compelling footage) as it embeds with students who occupy the president’s office of New York’s Cooper Union when that institution breaks with its own history and announces that tuition will no longer be free. But just when you start to focus on that story, the documentary cuts away to another thread.
Several movies — or better yet, a documentary series — could be made from the subject matter. By itself, Ivory Tower is like looking at a syllabus on the first day of class, rather than experiencing the full course.
We Are the Best! With Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne. Directed by Lukas Moodysson. In Swedish with subtitles. Unrated. 102 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Ivory Tower. A documentary by Andrew Rossi. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.