“What do you mean, ‘Out of tune’?” says middle schooler Klara, the lead singer and bassist in the self-proclaimed Best Band in the World (even before they’ve learned to play their instruments). It is 1982 in Stockholm, and she and best friend Bobo are being taught chords by new recruit, Hedvig, a tall blonde outcast. They’ve asked her to join their band after realizing that, despite her long hair and shiny crucifix, she has the right attitude for punk. “Why does she keep performing when everyone boos her?” they ask just before asking her to join.
The new film by Lucas Moodysson is, in many ways, a typical and flawless coming-of-age film. What it does best, though, is show the particular arc of the kind of kid whose life is saved by music. There are early scenes of Bobo drowning out the cheesy mainstream music of bland adult life and strife by blasting punk through her headphones. And the scenes where the girls transition from not knowing how to play at all, to writing lyrics about their annoyances (being called ugly freaks, hating sport and conformity), to finally figuring out the very basic formula of punk rock, are all so thrilling and authentic. It’s the greatest movie ever about Riot Grrrl, yet taking place a decade before it existed.
Also great is the way Moodysson’s script (based on his wife Coco Moodysson’s autobiographical graphic novel) nails the archetypes of a band. There is the irrepressible, outgoing and photogenic lead singer, Klara. The guitarist, Hedvig, is a moody, quiet artist. And then there is bespectacled drummer-type, Bobo, who worries about being boring. She wanted to play the bass, too, but of course she doesn’t get to.
The mopey Bobo is the soul of the film, with her sensitive observations and the hilarious way she leans on record connoisseurship to interact with the world. The way the three girls’ speaking voices work together is so fresh and interesting. Klara is hyper, fearless, bossy and a borderline spaz—“You have to, you have no choice, this is fate,” she says often—while Hedvig’s low voice interjects deadpan bits of reason. As for poor Bobo, her voice can never rise above a nasally whine, except when she’s in a panic. She drags her feet through life, while Klara helps her steamroll through. “Tell me one thing that’s good about my life,” she complains to Klara late at night.
“You’re in the best band in the world.”
And there is a pause of consideration before Bobo says, “That’s one thing.”
The performances and energy of the film are, from beginning to end, thrilling. And while details are perfect (especially the shame of wearing make-up and wanting to impress a boy, and in doing so going against their principles), the film’s coming-of-age beats are almost by rote and predictable. The moving camera, too, while it at first feels as energetic and edgy as the young performers, begins to resemble current television, like The Office or Parks and Recreation.
A more interesting television reference, whether conscious or not, is the Swedish television program Pippi Longstocking. In fact, I think this works best as a children’s movie, and I can’t think of a better message for current girls than to be punk: to be loud, ugly and amateurish. It’s a reminder to rail against capitalism and impending environmental disaster, and call all adults fascists. “Maybe you have heard that punk is dead,” says Klara at their debut, at a suburban Santa Rock show, “but it’s not.”
Director: Lukas Moodysson
Writer: Lukas Moodysson, Coco Moodysson (comic book)
Starring: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne
Release Date: May 30, 2014 (limited)