Show Me Love (Sweden, 1998)
aka Fucking Åmål
Alexandra Dahlstrom, Rebecca Liljeberg, Mathias Rust, Erica Carlson, Stefan
Horberg, Josefin Nyberg, Ralph Carlsson, Maria Hedborg, Axel Widegren, Jill
Written and Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Review by Kristian Wiggert.
It’s doubtful that this film will be released outside of a few major cities in the United States. That’s not surprising: films in Swedish with homosexual themes are not a good bet in suburban shopping malls. But it’s still a shame, because Show Me Love is one of the best films about teenagers in years.
Show Me Love tells the story of the love between two girls, Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom) and Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg), in the Swedish town of Åmål. Åmål is the Swedish version (small houses and apartments instead of tract homes on quarter-acre lots) of suburban hell. Not much happens in Åmål. Things always seem to be a bit behind the trendier part of the world. The beautiful, popular Elin wants to go to a rave one night, only to find that raves are now "out" everywhere else but "Fucking Åmål," as Elin refers to it (and as this film was titled everywhere except the schizophrenically puritanical United States).
Out of a sheer lack of anything better to do, Elin and her sister Jessica (Erica Carlson) decide to go to Agnes Ahlberg’s sixteenth birthday party. Until the two sisters show up, the party is a disaster. No one will spend time with the unpopular Agnes except the wheelchair-bound Viktoria (Josefin Nyberg), who is also ostracized because of her disability. Elin and Jessica have heard rumors that Agnes is a lesbian. So, on a bet with Jessica, Elin kisses Agnes, and then runs off, leaving a confused and miserable Agnes with lipstick all over her face. Elin’s cruel joke soon backfires, however, as she realizes she has feelings for Agnes.
The rest of the film spins out the consequences of that one kiss. Will the two would-be lovers end up together, or will the forces around and inside them keep them apart?
It would be possible to use that question, suitably jazzed up for marketing purposes, as a tagline for Show Me Love. Director Lukas Moodysson’s take on this conventional plot line is letter-perfect. Anyone with a romantic bone in his or her body couldn’t fail to get a little gooey inside about the two girls’ romance (when it works out). Moodysson even found a way to put "I Want to Know What Love Is" by Foreigner in the soundtrack without making me gag and have Miami Vice flashbacks.
But beyond this level, Moodysson does a wonderful job fitting the heavier themes--homosexuality, suburban alienation and teen angst--into the conventional structure without weighing the film down. He’s helped by the talent of his young actors and actresses. Dahlstrom makes us feel Elin’s frustration with her dead-end life, from her petulant rage against her sister for finishing the chocolate milk to her breakup--by calling his friend’s prized cell phone from the next room--with her doltish boyfriend Johan (Mathias Rust--no relation to the German who landed his plane in Red Square). Her random cruelties to Agnes as she struggles with the implications of her feelings are a spot-on depiction of the way many people react to painful situations they would rather avoid.
Liljeberg has the role of depressed teenager down pat. She makes Agnes’ agony at being jerked around by Elin show up in every aspect of her stricken face. Watching her deal with all the things that make her an outcast brings you straight back to the awful misery that it’s possible to feel as a teenager. But she also shows incredible strength--it’s obvious, for example, that although she is never completely out until the end of the film, Agnes is not uncomfortable with her homosexuality per se but rather with the consequences it has.
The adult characters are also well-drawn, Ralph Carlsson is particularly good as Agnes’ father, who reassures her that eventually--in 25 years or so--things will be better. You know he means well and loves his daughter deeply; he is simply too removed from her experiences to help much. Yet he and the other adult characters do not come off as clueless or downright dangerous, as they have so often in recent American films such as Happiness or American Beauty. Instead, Moodysson makes us recognize that a disconnect between parent and child is inevitable at some point. You can’t give someone perspective; they just have to get it on their own.
Moodysson also conveys the prejudice that surrounds homosexuality without bludgeoning you over the head with it. In one particularly poignant scene, Viktoria, herself a pariah because of her disability, turns on Agnes with rumors and innuendo in order to curry favor with the "normal" kids. In another, when Agnes’ little brother Oskar (Axel Widegren) asks his mother whether homosexuals are sick and should be sent to the hospital, she laughs him off. When he then mentions that he has heard that Agnes is a lesbian, her complacent air of tolerance is literally wiped off her face and replaced with shocked denial.
Show Me Love has a grainy, home-movie like quality to it that seems right in sync with the slice-of-life story Moodysson is telling. His camera work also follows the moods of the plot. He lets it linger over Agnes as she lies in her bed waiting for Elin to call, then shifts to a more jangly style in scenes in which the teenagers get together to party. You never get the sense that any of this is done just to follow the recent trend towards reality-based filming, however. Rather, the spare style further removes the film from any of the pretentiousness that could easily creep into the proceedings given the subject matter.
Despite all of the themes he has packed into this short film, Moodysson manages to keep the overall tone remarkably light. There are many funny moments, both painful and farcical. The ending is a bit cute, involving an obvious interpretation of the closet metaphor, but it’s possible to believe that, even if they have further difficulties, the two girls will work things out in the end.
It’s a measure of how good this little gem is that, although I left the theater with a smile on my face, a warm fuzzy feeling in my stomach and the catchy pop tune by Swedish star Robyn that gives the film its American title playing in my head, the other things that Moodysson explores are still in my mind today. And I also still have that warm fuzzy feeling.
Review © October 1999 by AboutFilm.Com
and the author
Images © 1999 by Strand Releasing. All Rights Reserved.