VENICE FILM FESTIVAL: Adapted from a graphic novel written by his wife Coco, Lucas Moodyson’s seventh feature marks not only a return to form after a number of misfires, but also to the generosity of spirit, the emotional openness that characterised his first two films, 1998’s great Show Me Love—like this one, a tale of teenage female friendship—and Together (2000), an ensemble comedy-drama that saw the young Swede hailed as an heir to the Bergman of Fanny and Alexander.
delightful to watch, and frequently very funny
Perhaps he baulked at that comparison. Or maybe he felt trapped by the relative accessibility of those films—which were nothing if not easy to adore—and believed himself obliged, as an artist, to deliver some weightier, more profound statement on the human condition. Whatever the reason, while his subsequent work grew darker, it also proved much less resonant.
Lilya 4-Ever (2000) was tough and well-intentioned, but also overly didactic and way too predictable. However, it was A Hole in My Heart, made two years later, which serves to alienate many of his fans. A harsh, sexually explicit drama, it sought to explore notions of morality and coercion, but instead evinced only a blunt disgust with humanity; worse, its maker seemed weary with the very act of filmmaking itself. Black-and-white experimental film Container (2006) marked a retreat, a shift into pure formalism—so much so, that by the timeMammoth appeared, in 2009, many people had simply stopped caring.
It’s something of a relief, therefore, to see the director back at his best: depicting a milieu he knows, and fully engaged once more with his material. This time, it’s 1982 in Stockholm. Thirteen-year-old best friends Bobo and Klara are wannabe punks—and as such, outcasts at their school; the other kids take pleasure in reminding them at every opportunity that the movement is already dead. (A concert sequence, in which the pair sit, fairly speechless with disgust, watching some of their classmates perform a dance routine—to The Human League, of all things—neatly captures both their isolation, and the uncompromising purism that sustains it.)
On a whim, and with no musical ability whatsoever, they decide to form a band of their own—or, rather, two-thirds of one: a rhythm section in search of a guitarist. And while Bobo is the more intelligent of the pair, watchful and contemplative, hiding her feelings behind oversized, Harry Potter-style spectacles, she’s constantly overshadowed by the brasher, more assertive Klara. Who not only assumes lead singer duties, but consigns her reluctant friend to drums.
For a while they’re content to make an unwholesome racket in their school’s music rooms. And then, abruptly, salvation comes—in the form of pretty classical guitarist Hedvig, a shy Christian given to outfits straight out ofThe Brady Bunch Variety Hour, and as much of an misfit as themselves. Initially hesitant, she’s soon convinced to join the pair, and brings enough in the way of musicianship (she knows actual chords!) to haul their band—perennially unnamed throughout—to something approaching the bottom rungs of adequacy.
Their sound is thin and ragged, more enthusiastic than cohesive—imagine early Sleater-Kinney by way of The Shaggs—and one of the film’s most refreshing elements is that the trio never quite achieve the raw power they’re aiming for, much less the fame; in this sense, as in every other, it’s a resolutely truthful account. But the music here is really just a Macguffin, a way into Moodyson’s real subject: the complex and often unequal dynamics of adolescent friendships.
Hedvig, refreshingly, isn’t nearly as prissy as she first seems, and we soon have the sense that her faith is actually a family obligation rather than a deeply-held personal belief. Her slow, chrysalis-like coming-out (achieved in slow stages: first, via an electric guitar, then a short haircut) is thrilling to behold; of the three girls, she’s probably the most interesting. But Moodyson also sets clear fault-lines in the relationship between Klara and Bobo, fissures which begin to widen when they find themselves both attracted to the same boy, a guitarist in another local punk band (notable chiefly for their protest song, ‘Brezhnev, Reagan . . . Fuck Off!’).
That dispute is resolved, finally—but you sense it’s merely a short-term fix. Watching, I never had the sense that Klara and Bobo would be friends for life. They’re too dissimilar, too much at odds in terms of taste and personality, and the differences between them will only become more obvious as they proceed through adolescence. But then, the narrative here leaves many possibilities unexplored, and hints at much still to come for these three girls beyond the closing credits.
Moodyson’s filmmaking here is not especially refined. His compositions are handheld and reactive, seemingly caught on the fly, and individual scenes have a chaotic, semi-improvised feel. The narrative feels accumulative rather than properly structured. (Though the ostensible climax has an undeniable charge, a defiant, fuck you energy—referencing the film’s title—that’s properly, authentically punk.)
Yet one could argue that form, here, more than adequately mirrors content: the filmmaker’s loose-limbed, anecdotal method communicating something of the unruly, undisciplined tone of our early teens. Either way, it’s delightful to watch, and frequently very funny. Always superb with actors, Moodyson reiterates his credentials as an extraordinary chronicler of teenage yearning and friendship—particularly female friendship. In fact, for all its apparent superficiality, this actually feels far more profound—more acutely observed and significant—than any of the overtly ‘serious’ movies he’s been making over the past decade. Maybe because, contrary to what he might once have believed, there’s nothing remotely frivolous about adolescence. On the contrary, like the music you choose to love (and reject), it’s all very much a matter of life and death.