Lukas Moodysson, We Are the Best!, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 102 minutes. Elis, Klara, and Bobo (Jonathan Salomonsson, Mira Grosin, and Mira Barkhammar).

WITH HIS FIRST two features, Show Me Love (1998) and Together (2000), Lukas Moodysson proved himself to be a gifted, compassionate director of children, especially of misfit girls. That empathy and generosity, however, curdled in most of the works that followed, particularly the horrifically manipulative Lilya 4-Ever (2002), about an abandoned sixteen-year-old sold into sex slavery, and Mammoth (2009), the Swedish filmmaker’s global guilt-tripping project propelled by overdetermined symmetries between first-world privilege and third-world misery. Fortunately, Moodysson’s devotion to feel-bad humanism seems to be behind him: The sweetly detailed We Are the Best!, his first movie since Mammoth, marks a cheering return to the celebration of female-adolescent weirdos.

Set in Stockholm in 1982, We Are the Best! is based on Never Goodnight, a 2008 graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco, inspired by her teenage years as a punk enthusiast. Her analogue in the film, the bespectacled Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), is introduced glumly enduring her divorced mother’s fortieth birthday party before retreating to her bedroom and the pleasures therein: the balm of commiserating over the phone with her best friend, Klara (Mira Grosin)—whose Mohawk establishes her own punk bona fides—about the inanities of parents and the bliss of losing herself in her Walkman.

Like most thirteen-year-olds fervently committed to a cause, Bobo and Klara must frequently defend their calling from naysayers, like the two Human League–loving blonde classmates dressed in princess pink who insist that “punk’s dead,” and from apostates, including Klara’s older brother, who now “only listens to Joy Division.” Indignities suffered in gym class help them put theory into practice: Forced to run laps for not displaying sufficient teamwork during a basketball game, the two outcasts come up with the lyrics to their first song, “Hate the Sport” (“Children in Africa are dying / All you care about is balls flying / Hate the sport / Hate the sport”), thrashing away on instruments neither knows how to play.

Bobo and Klara soon add a third member to their unnamed group, the solemn Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne, a Scandi ringer for Léa Seydoux), whose crucifix pendant has made her even more of a pariah than these scruffy iconoclasts. “It’s political of us to hang out with the less fortunate,” Bobo believes, though she also hopes that Hedvig, who had impressed her with classical-guitar performance at the school talent show, can teach them what a chord is. Unfazed when her new friends introduce her to a track called “Hang God,” the Christian fourteen-year-old will later teach her squabbling bandmates, in one of the film’s loveliest scenes, the importance of forgiveness, instructing them, “Say after me: ‘I like you. We like each other.’ ”

Era-specific but never nostalgic, tender but never sentimental, We Are the Best!, like all good films about teenage girls, finely illuminates the emotional extremes of this tumultuous development stage: how bravado and self-importance can quickly yield to existential panic and self-loathing. And in its heroines’ refusal to accept the diminishing label “girl band,” We Are the Best! reveals a political view more forceful and convincing than that found in Moodysson’s earlier misguided screeds.

Melissa Anderson

We Are the Best! screens February 22 at Walter Reade Theater in New York as part ofFilm Comment Selects,” which runs February 17–27; the film opens theatrically in the US on May 30.