Great Films: Fucking Åmål [Show Me Love] (Lukas Moodysson, 1998, Denmark / Sweden)

The best line in Richard Linklater’s 1993 high school comedy Dazed and Confused is when Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd says “if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life – remind me to kill myself”. That one line seems to eloquently sum up the wide gap between the idealised notions of blissful adolescence we are frequently spoon-fed and the altogether more grim realities of growing up which we all faced, or are facing, as well as the almost inevitable glossing over of these which seems to occur in our oh-so-tough later years of mortgages, pensions and rising energy bills. Like Linklater’s influential film, Lukas Moodysson’s debut feature Show Me Love reminds us all of the emotional traumas, as well as the fleeting triumphs, of those ever-fading-from-memory days of youthful naivety and boredom.

The setting is Åmål, a small town in the Swedish south-west so unaffectionately described in the film’s original title, but viewers may quickly recognise it as like many a small town elsewhere in the Western world. There is quickly established the sense of there being really nothing for young people to do, aside from going to school, hanging around each others’ houses and the occasional teenage ‘party’. The popular, attractive Elin sums this frustration up wonderfully in an early scene; wanting to go to a ‘rave’ but grounded by her parents for a tantrum, she roots around in the medicine cabinet, finally reasoning that her best chance of getting high will be to take a massive dose of antacid pills – when told the folly of her plan, she can only scream “I want to take drugs!”. For all of her popularity, she seems jaded by the insularity of her small-town existence.

It could be worse for Elin; at least she has friends. Agnes is a girl who attends the same school, but is a loner, depressed and frustrated by her inability to make any real friends. She looks up to her more popular, attractive classmate, and has also developed something of a crush on her, knowing full well that realistically nothing could ever happen between them. Her kindly, well-meaning but rather out-of-touch parents try to do their best to help her, telling her that it is because she is new to the area, and that anyway the popular kids at school always end up as the ones that never amount to anything. How this is supposed to comfort a sixteen year-old girl is anybody’s guess.

Still meaning well, Agnes’ parents arrange a birthday party for her, even going so far as to print out invitations for the others at school, not realising the probable humiliation this would bring on their daughter. Sure enough, when Agnes hands them out, she is treated with scorn, and sure enough, when the time comes for her party, no-one shows up except for a similarly friendless girl, the wheelchair-bound Viktoria. Angry at her humiliation, Agnes screams abuse at her and storms off to her room without eating.

In the meantime, Elin and her sister Jessica, remembering the invitation they received and desparately wanting to get drunk but also to avoid another party elsewhere, decide to go to Agnes’ party, drink as much free booze as they can, and then leave. Rumours have spread around school about their classmate’s supposed sexual preference, and Viktoria dares her sister to kiss Agnes, for the princeley sum of a few kronor. Game for a laugh, she agrees to do it, quickly running off to the other party after having done so. On arriving at the other, more populated party, Elin feels guilty at what she has done, and returns to Agnes’ house to invite her over as well.

Up until this point, the film has been about contrasts, but from here on an affinity develops between the two girls, despite their differences. On the way to the other party, they both begin to talk about how stifled they feel in Åmål, Elin in particular fearful of getting pregnant and winding up as a single mother stuck in the town for the rest of her life. They both have dreams and ambitions, but neither is particularly confident of bringing them to fruition. Stoked up on the booze, they even attempt to hitchhike to Stockholm (a five hour drive away) as at least a tokenistic, temporary escape.

Show Me Love could so easily be many things – exploitative, leering, predictable, whimsical, patronising to its characters – but its real triumph is that it is none of these things, and the ease with which it tells its story and sets up its environment it effortless. Critics of the film have pointed to its lack of character development or depth, but for me this is symptomatic of its strengths. In one scene, Elin is quizzed by her sister about an ‘Italian guy’ she was supposed to be in love with, which she dismisses with a simple “no, that was yesterday”. How can we expect straightforward Hollywood character development from the rapidly changing moods of teenagers? The film’s rapid shifts from light to dark, from comedy to seriousness, are just reflections of the fluctuations of the flyaway teenage mood.

One of the other strengths of the film is the performances of the two leads: Alexandra Dahlström really shines as Elin, a mess of teenage contradictions, somehow both superficial and deep, while Rebecka Liljeberg as Agnes has less of a showy role but invests her character with equally numerous nuances. And it was not until seeing Juno (2007) this year that I have seen such a warmly-drawn parent figure, here in the person of Agnes’ father: he sympathetically tries to do his best for his daughter, but is painfully out of touch and is no comfort. Sometimes there really is nothing a parent can do or say to help matters.

Show Me Love was well received both critically and publicly, even grossing more than Titanic (1997) at the Swedish box-office in 1998. The late Ingmar Bergman even labelled Show Me Love “a young master’s first masterpiece”. Since then, his subsequent films have become increasingly dark in tone and subject matter, such as the bleak Lilya 4-ever (2002) and the highly controversial A Hole in My Heart (2004), which now seem a long long way away from the optimism of this and his second feature, Together (2000). While i appreciate his later work greatly, his debut remains for me his masterpiece, and one of the greatest portrayals of the pains and trivialities of adolescence.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Great Films: Fucking Åmål [Show Me Love] (Lukas Moodysson, 1998, Denmark / Sweden)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s