How does a 45 year-old male non-musician make one of the best movies ever made about being young, female, and punk rock? By staying frisky, for starters. “When I’m directing, I feel like an amateur who’s not really sure what I’m doing,” Swedish director Lukas Moodysson says by phone from Stockholm. “I’m not saying that I only know how to play three chords, but I have to remind myself all the time — how does this work? How do I do this?”
That enthusiasm for the unpolished and the rough-edged has now helped fuel one of the best rock & roll cult movies in years: We Are the Best tells the story of three earnest middle-school girls who impulsively decide to form a punk band in ths stultifying Stockholm of the early Eighties. The peers of angry young middle-schoolers Klara and Bobo (played by Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammar, both nonmusicians) may have deemed screamed, three-chord rants against the state to be passé compared to pop music. But that doesn’t stop the duo from recruiting a talented Christian-rock guitarist (Liv LeMoyne) and trying desperately to rebel. The subject of their one angry anthem, titled “Hate the Sport,” is something any misfit 12-year-old can relate to — the soul-crushing tyranny of gym class. “I wasn’t so interested in what they were rebelling against, more like the attitude of not caring if people around them would accept or support them,” the director says. “I think it’s political just to make a movie about three young girls, to take them seriously.”
The film is an adaptation of an autobiographical graphic novel by the director’s wife, Coco Moodysson, who said her original aim was to highlight “girls who could be ugly and make noise and do what they want.” (Coco did indeed start her own tween-power trio while in school; the character of Bobo is loosely based on her.) Lukas, who grew up hanging out with punks who “smashed bottles on their head,” was adamant that this Eighties period piece was not to be viewed as some sort of wistful nostalgia trip. Though he spent his formative years listening to Swedish punk bands like Ebba Grön and KSMB — both of whom appear on the film’s soundtrack — he said he didn’t feel at home in the movement. “The punks where I grew up were really tough guys,” the filmmaker recalls. “I didn’t really understand that kind of attitude, that kind of masculinity.”
Instead of breaking glass and busting skulls, Moodysson turned to poetry as an outlet, publishing several volumes of verse as part of a regional movement known as Malmöligan. After switching career paths and joining the country’s film-school, one of Moodysson’s shorts was seen by a prominent producer for the Swedish film company Memfis, which led to the director’s 1998 feature debut Show Me Love — known in his native country as Fucking Åmål — and instant acclaim. The story of two female teenagers dealing with the boredom of small-town life and negotiating a romantic relationship, it immediately established him as a keen purveyor of restless, rebellious youth culture. (The Hives‘ Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist recently told The New York Times that, for his generation, it was the “first film to portray what life was really like for us.”) After a number of hits, misses and flirtations with Hollywood (including 2009’s Mammoth, starring Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams), the popular consensus was that the director had exhausted himself creatively.
In a way, We Are the Best represents a full-circle return for Moodysson, both artistically and thematically; there’s a sense that the man behind the camera shares the same sense of contact-high wonder in punk’s amateur-hour expressiveness as his subjects. Though he’s a self-proclaimed Tumblr obsessive and Rihanna and Miley Cyrus fan, the director claims he’s not interested in glorifying youth culture; he just wants to do justice to Bobo & co.’s story. Still, Moodysson is the first to admit that getting in touch with clueless adolescent abandon was therapeutic. “When you’re older, you lose the ability to react to things, to be passionate about things,” he says. “And with punk rock, anything is possible.”
This story is from the June 5th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.