I think the only genuinely Swedish film I’ve seen before this one is Män Som Hatar Kvinnor, the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Oh yeah, and Låt Den Rätte Komma In, the original “Let the Right One In”. Not exactly the best grounding in Sweden’s culture or film conventions. But I was still able to enjoy Vi är Bäst!, a coming-of-age tale about three rebellious thirteen-year-olds in Stockholm circa 1982. It’s not that hard to remember what it was like for me to be thirteen years old, and this film handily demonstrates the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bobo, Klara, and Hedvig (no Angry Inch here) face the same pressures and challenges that made middle school a distinct era in my life, despite being firmly rooted in a culture half a world and more than a decade away from what I knew, and enamored of a subculture that I have generally steered clear from. So how does Vi är Bäst! pull it off?
Authenticity of Setting
One of the things that I loved best about Vi är Bäst! was the details that marked it as being created by people from Sweden, as opposed to Hollywood writers giving their US experience a Swedish skin. For example, I found it puzzling that Hedvig’s Christianity marked her as a social undesirable at school, whereas in a US school it would be completely unremarkable. Bobo and Klara make a big deal out of wanting to convert her to secular thinking. So I asked someone better versed in Swedish culture than me about it. My friend pointed out that in the 1980s, only about 12% of the Swedish population would have identified as Christian, and only about 8% more of the population would have identified with another religion. The culture was about 80% rational/secular (still is, as a matter of fact, from what my friend was saying), so Hedvig openly wearing a cross necklace would indeed mark her as an odd duck. If I hadn’t watched Vi är Bäst! I would not have known this about the region (Norway and Denmark have similar rates of religious participation, Finland’s are slightly higher). Thanks, Lukas Moodysson! Another detail that marked Vi är Bäst! as authentically foreign to me was the name of the main character, “Bobo” (which my Scandinavia-loving friend said is probably a nickname, short for Brunhilde). As awful as this may sound, I couldn’t hear the main character’s name without it conjuring up unpleasant association with monkeys, something Bobo’s parents would certainly have wanted to avoid. The fact that she could bear this name without being commented on or teased definitely told me that I was not in familiar cultural territory.
Vi är Bäst! does a dynamite job of capturing the preadolescent and early adolescent struggle to find a social niche. While Klara and Bobo clearly do not fit in with the rest of their classmates, they have each other and they work hard to connect to the wider counterculture movement of punk. They read magazines aimed at teens in the movement, connect with two suburban punks (the connection flames out miserably, but they take the time and effort to make it), and most of the film’s plot centers around their effort to form their own punk band. This is a smaller niche than the ones the popular kids inhabit, but it is still a niche. And Klara in particular puts a lot of energy into defining the basis of that niche as being political.
I have already stated that Bobo is the main character of the film. I think this was an interesting artistic choice on the part of Moodysson, because Klara is clearly the character with more fire and dynamic potential. This film could be seen as an answer to the question of, what would Gone With the Wind have been like if told from the point of view of Melanie, instead of Scarlett? (Although, to be fair, Bobo is never as inhumanly angelic as Melanie gets depicted.) When Bobo finally confronts Klara on her overbearing dominance in their friendship, I pretty much wanted to cheer. The resolution of this conflict dissatisfied me on an ideological level but I have to give Moodysson credit for capturing how the real world doesn’t usually sync with emancipatory ideology.
You may have noticed that this review is dedicated almost exclusively to Vi är Bäst!‘s narrative component, with little attention paid to the visual and auditory aspects that mark it as a film. This was deliberate on my part. I would argue that Vi är Bäst! doesn’t really need to be a film. It could have been just as effective as art if it had been released as a young adult novel. It was a pleasant experience and I would love to give a copy of it to my niece, who is just leaving the phase of life depicted in favor of the more complicated and nuanced world of high school, but I can’t say Vi är Bäst! is one of my favorite films or a “must-see”. Track it down to provide emotional validation for your inner punk, and don’t think too hard about this one.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5.