Girl power: Liv LeMoyne, Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammer in We Art the Best!
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Lukas Moodysson, the Swedish director back from the dead

Lukas Moodysson, director of Lilya 4-Eva and Container talks about his new (and most accomplished) film We Are the Best! in which three Stockholm teenagers form a punk bank.

Lukas Moodysson is lounging in the lib­rary of a London hotel wearing an all-black ensemble – wide-brimmed hat, cardigan, shirt, trousers, boots. The Johnny Cash effect is undermined only by the plump, salmon-pink handbag sitting at his feet. I remark primly that I thought it was a woman’s bag. “Well, it is,” he says, stroking his neat, silver-laced beard. “But I am a woman.”

Like much of what the 45-year-old film-maker says, this comes off as humorous without technically being a joke. Most of us will simply be glad he’s in a jaunty mood. It’s doubtful that a grouch could have made a movie like We Are the Best! (in cinemas now), a riotous and touching comedy about three 13-year-old girls – the owlish Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), her pixie-faced, mohawk-flaunting chum Klara (Mira Grosin) and the demure Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) – who form an after-school punk band in 1980s Stockholm. An inability to play their instruments proves to be no obstacle at all. They’ve got it where it counts: snarling energy, naive charm, optimism. That goes double for the movie.

It’s been more than a decade since anyone had a good time at a Lukas Moodysson film. His finest picture, Together, set in a commune of 1970s Swedish hippies and their children, was released in 2000. Since then, it’s been wall-to-wall misery: trafficked child prostitutes (Lilya 4-Ever), the amateur porn industry (A Hole in My Heart), the unmanageable chaos of modern life (Container), conflict both marital and global (Mammoth). When the trailer for We Are the Best! was unveiled at the London Film Festival the relief was profound: could this be Together again? Sure enough, the new film thrives on the same mixture of nostalgia and scepticism, merriment and melancholia. Based on the graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife Coco, it couldn’t be watched in any state other than complete delight.

How must it be, I wonder, finally to have made another movie that everyone actually likes? “I don’t think everyone likes it,” he chuckles. But what beef could someone have with such an exuberant, compassionate picture? “Ah, now you are asking me to repeat negative criticism!” A few home-grown critics, he says, tend to review him rather than his films. In Sweden, Moodysson was an established poet before he branched out into cinema in 1998 with Fucking Åmål (called Show Me Love in the UK), a perceptive love story about two provincial teenage girls. At Sweden’s prestigious Guldbagge film awards, where it scooped all the main prizes, Moodysson gave a long and inflammatory anti-elitist speech before leaving the stage with his middle finger raised to the booing crowd.

A contrarian he may be. But that’s not the whole story. He is also suspicious of a consensus, even one that works in his favour. The popularity of We Are the Best! seems to faze him slightly. “I’m surprised when anyone likes what I’ve done. My feeling about life is that there is always a combination of answers to any question, so it’s strange when everyone agrees. I know life is more complicated than that.”

He has spent his career wrestling with this polarity. As far back as Fucking Åmål horror was munching away at the edges of his work: that film was originally conceived as a tale of two sisters living next door to a serial killer. By the time of A Hole in My Heart, with its close-up dissections of artificial vaginas, and a climax in which one character vomits into the mouth of another, despair appeared to have consumed him. Not so, he insists. “I wrote parts of it while on holiday in Greece with my wife and our children. We had just had another baby and I was feeling so happy. Sometimes it takes happiness to open you up to terrible things, and vice versa.”

Not that he wrote the new script with his head in a noose. While teaching at film school in Helsinki, he asked his class to make a hopeful film about the difficulties of life. “I decided with We Are the Best! to give that assignment to myself – to show that life can be shit but the possibilities are out there.” It also marks his return to cinema after taking four years off to write two novels following the death of his father. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘This is over.’ But I felt very tired of making films. My father died unexpectedly of a heart attack and I was at the hospital. It was only five minutes after he died and he was lying there – this is a funny story even though it’s about dead fathers – and I thought, ‘I have no interest in bringing a camera here. I just want to go home and write.’ So I wondered if maybe I’m not a film director at all because this enormous experience didn’t make me want to make a movie.”

The hiatus did him good, and We Are the Best! feels zingy and fresh. “I wanted to do something where people jump up and down and scream into microphones and play drums and survive and their parents might not care about them but they still have a good time.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.