Grooving on the unique musical stylings of the Swedish punk rock flick, We Are the Best!

The average life cycle of a fictional big-screen band goes like so: the humble origin, the awkward first rehearsal, the even more awkward first gig, the sudden rush of success, the high-flying halcyon days of stardom, the cracks in the camaraderie, the pain of infighting and, at the end of all things, the premature demise of a once-great group of musicians and friends. It’s a classic rise-and-fall narrative that has fueled movies as terrific as David Chase’s underappreciated Not Fade Away and as mediocre as Tom Hanks’s loving, but deeply flawed That Thing You Do! And a number of those same beats are hit in Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, which tracks the super-casual beginnings of an amateur punk rock outfit in ’80s-era Stockholm fronted by a trio of teenage girls, only one of whom has any real musical experience.

Given that paucity of training, you’d think that a musical act like this would go directly from “humble origins” to “premature demise,” skipping over all the stages in between. But you’d be wrong, because Moodysson isn’t out to tell a story about the pain of the artistic process and the price of success. Instead, We Are the Best!—which is based on an autobiographical graphic novel written by the director’s wife—is almost entirely celebratory in its depiction of the collaboration and creativity that comes from diving headfirst into an artistic pursuit like forming a band; sure the heroines have their arguments and disagreements along the way, but overall their lives are enriched by the beautiful music they’re trying (and sometimes failing) to make.

As far as reasons for starting a band go, few would seem more random and vaguely petty than, “Because those assholes were mean to us.” But that proves to be enough incentive for Bobo and Klara, a pair of aspiring punk rockers who aren’t willing to accept the prevailing wisdom that punk is dead. When the members of a semi-legitimate rock group billing themselves as Iron Fist kick the girls out of the rehearsal space at the local rec center, the two seize advantage of a technicality to claim the room for themselves and start fooling around with the drum set and bass guitar that are among the center’s few amenities. Their noodling eventually results in a decent chord progression and, the next day, they hit upon a subject (and chorus!) for a song: gym class sucks, natch. Realizing that they probably would benefit from the expertise of someone who has actually held an instrument before, they bring aboard perky blonde dork Hedvig, best known for being their school’s resident religious nut. (Even though her parents appear to be much more into the whole God thing than she is.) As rehearsal follows rehearsal, their skills improve, their song improves and their confidence improves, though their days of playing nightclubs, let alone big arenas, are still very, very, very far off.

But then, these three don’t have to perform for cheering throngs in order to bask in the glow of accomplishment. Simply proving capable of writing and performing an original song provides them with the necessary fire to scream the titular boast (as they do on several occasions) and believe it. Chalk it up to the foolishness of youth if you want, but there’s a primal joy that Klara, Bobo and Hedvig derive from their rec center jam sessions that’s more satisfying than signing a major record deal. (Were this a mainstream American picture—where success is too often measured by earning power—there’d probably be a climactic scene where an overeager record exec happens to overhear the girls play and decides they’d found the next Runaways.) The lack of professional stakes, which play such a critical role in most making-the-band stories, is perhaps the thing I appreciated most about We Are the Best! It doesn’t matter whether the rest of the world believes in the supreme best-ness of these rockers or ever hears a note they play; watching them discover their inner punk star through practice, practice and more practice is where they movie finds its groove.

That’s also why I admit to being slightly disappointed when Moodysson resorts to more predictable means of generating dramatic conflict halfway through the narrative. Although they’re hardcore best buds, there’s a simmering rivalry running underneath Bobo and Klara’s relationship that seeps out at inopportune times. Bobo in particular is often bedeviled by the green-eyed monster, whether it’s the result of Klara’s snap decision to claim the bass for herself leaving the drums for her buddy or the fact that the boy Bobo is interested in is more interested in her pal. This kind of adolescent angst is to be expected, I suppose, and the film at least doesn’t dwell on it to the point where it threatens to become an after school special for the importance of putting friendship first, but it’s dramatized in a more familiar key than the rest of the movie, culminating in the obligatory scene where the band appears to be headed on a one-way trip to Splitsville. Fortunately, cooler head prevail and the movie crashes to a close with the band’s first big show—which refreshingly doesn’t go the way you might expect.  Is it too soon to ask for an encore?