There are some faces you fall in love with at first sight, and Mira Barkhammar in “We Are the Best!” has one. Playing Bobo, a deeply disgruntled middle-schooler who starts a punk band with her friends in 1982 Stockholm, Barkhammar glares at the world through John Lennon glasses and has recently lopped her hair off into a bushy brown shrub. She looks like a dyspeptic koala, or Leon Trotsky reincarnated as a 13-year-old girl. She’s adorable, mostly because she’s determined not to be.
“We Are the Best!” is a messy, congenial empowerment story that knows how aggravating adolescence can be when you refuse to fit in. All of it drives Bobo crazy: her single mom (Anna Rydgren) with the serial boyfriends, the idiot classmates who don’t care about the nuclear threat, the pap that passes for Top 40 radio, gym class. Especially gym class. Bobo would be a revolutionary if she could settle on something to revolt against; the movie keeps catching her staring into mirrors, wondering who she was, is, and will be.
If Bobo’s the self-conscious Lennon of her self-willed exile, Klara (Mira Grosin) is the McCartney: outgoing and charmingly defiant, with a raffish smile to match the curve of her Mohawk. “We Are the Best!” catches these two best friends in a dare: They sign up for the rehearsal room at the local youth center just to keep the local heavy-metal boy band from practicing. Klara picks up a bass guitar and browbeats Bobo into parking behind the drum kit; they bash around and come up with a chorus about hating organized sports. (“Children cry and scream, but you only care about your soccer team!”) Neither of them has any idea what they’re doing. This, of course, is how the Ramones and the Sex Pistols got started.
“We Are the Best!” is directed by Lukas Moodysson, a terrifically talented Swedish director whose movies don’t get over to the States nearly enough. (2000’s “Together” was his biggest hit here, while 2002’s “Lilya 4-Ever,” about a teenage sex slave, still haunts anyone who saw it.) He’s adapting a comic book by his artist wife Coco Moodysson, who’s drawing on her own memories of the era, but there’s nothing cartoonish about the new film. It’s slapdash and alive, with a 13-year-old’s under-the-radar improvisations and missteps.
The girls hang out at an older sibling’s party, trying to act grown-up and getting mortifyingly drunk instead. The band needs a guitarist, and the towering, Nordic Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) fits the bill; so what if she’s a practicing Christian who only plays classical music? An ill-advised haircut courtesy of Klara at least has her looking the part. The three go panhandling for money to buy an electric guitar and settle for potato chips and chocolate sauce. There are dalliances with boys and the random betrayal, all the more innocent for their studied cynicism. “We Are the Best!” remembers what it feels like to feel everything for the first time.
The movie is hardly about the group’s rise to the top — more like its rise to the middle rungs of the bottom. (It’s true to life in that as well, as anyone who was ever in a terrible teenage rock band can attest.) Anyway, Bobo and Klara and Hedvig aren’t after fame or art or even rudimentary musical skills but the more eternal rock ’n’ roll dream of outraging everyone within earshot. That glorious noise, that insistence on being heard, is more than enough.
“Say one good thing about my life,” demands a disconsolate Bobo at one point. Says Klara without missing a beat, “You’re in the world’s greatest band.” From where we sit, she’s right.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.