Girl power: Liv LeMoyne, Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammer in We Art the Best!
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times