fucking åmål (show me love)

1998

Written and Directed by: Lukas Moodysson

Films that embrace the lesbian teenage experience without condescension are rare, and so very necessary.

Sure, we've proven that as a society we can ridicule and satirise our teenagers (both gay and straight) and their real and perceived angst, but seldom does a film come along that is sweet without being saccharine and real without being preachy. Fucking Åmål is all this and more.

Famously, Fucking Åmål outperformed Titanic at the box office in Sweden in 1998, which shows just how much the Swedes took this little local film to their hearts. The word spread around the world via gay and lesbian film festivals until finally the film was given wider distribution via arthouse cinemas, albeit under the nom de plume "Show me Love", a sickly sweet title taken from the name of the hit song in the film's credits. But, as Shakespeare tells us, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Fucking Åmål doesn't really suffer from the silly name change except to lose some of the built-in claustrophobia that the original title carries with it. Åmål is the town in which the film is set, and "fucking Åmål" is the catchcry of the teenagers who live there, bored out of their minds and longing for anything to do.

Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) and her family have moved to Åmål from a larger town and even after two years Agnes has failed to settle in and make friends. She's the school outcast, miserable and alone. She's also struggling with her sexuality and develops a painful crush on Elin, one of the prettiest, most popular girls in the school.

Elin is a typical bored teenager obviously acting out, mowing down everyone and everything in her path, including her long-suffering mother and sister. She's pretty, popular, precocious and unbearable. She can't even stand herself, which would explain her desperate attempts to forget who she is through alcohol and her own selfish behaviour. After finding out Agnes is rumoured to be a lesbian, Elin kisses Agnes on a dare, thus starting in motion a series of events that lead Elin not only to question her selfish existence, but her own sexuality as well.

Agnes is so real, so utterly heartbreaking. Her misery is palpable, her intensity so familiar from that horrible stage in life we all went through when everything seemed so damned important. Incredibly, what rescues Agnes from being too depressing to watch is that, despite her claims to the contrary, she never really runs out of hope. During the film she makes remarkable leaps of faith to reach out towards this dream girl who, at first glance, seems truly unworthy of Agnes's affection and attention. Throughout the film Agnes sees qualities in the fickle Elin that we don't, that we must come to see, which makes all the pain worthwhile.

Elin for her part does everything she can to make Agnes's life miserable. She confirms to the general student population that Agnes is gay. She deliberately starts going out with an older boy who is shy and hopelessly infatuated with her, partly to fool her bewildered sister but mostly in a vain attempt to fool herself. Agnes endures the taunt and watches all this with a gloomy sense of the inevitable but never loses sight of what she really wants.

While dealing with her feelings, Agnes also has to cope with the meddlings of her well-meaning family. Agnes's mother reads her diary and is shocked to find out about Agnes's hidden sexuality. An attempt to confront Agnes with the truth goes horribly wrong. Her father attempts to pull his beloved daughter from her misery with promises that life all works out in the end, but Agnes responds with a magnificent observation; it's all well and good for adults to tell teenagers that it is often the outcasts who become truly successful in later life, and it might even be true, but stories of happiness twenty-five years from now are little comfort to a teenager suffering through the angst of today. Most young people, even the most over-achieving ones, live their lives from day to day. The future is something that will happen, but feelings and emotions and raging hormones are the realities of now.

Our teenage years are a minefield of choices and missed possibilities. No one embodies that concept more than Elin, who is obviously a smart girl with ambition but with no real focus. Her mother, worn down by the stress of work and raising two young girls on her own, has obviously disengaged with her own emotions and try as she might cannot seem to connect with her strange youngest daughter.

Elin is different. Agnes saw that all along, but it takes us almost an entire film of her wailing and whining and irritating behaviour for us to see the truth. She's just like Agnes, struggling with the truth of who she is, but experiencing that flipside of basic teenage truths: you can be the most popular kid in school and still feel like an outcast if deep inside you know that everything you're doing is simply to keep up an image you don't even believe in.

In the end we know that to come together with Agnes, Elin must make a leap of faith as big as the ones Agnes has made for her. Even hurt to the point of wanting to kill herself, Agnes is able to recognise and seize on the chance for happiness when it finally comes.

Fucking Åmål would not have been possible without the incredible acting talent that Moodysson assembled to make the film. The two leads are flawless, especially Liljeberg who you just know has a tremendous future awaiting her, even if just within the Swedish film industry. The acting is so natural I felt uncomfortable at times, as if I were really peeking into the lives of this bunch of emotionally and sexually charged teenagers. The dialogue is sometimes too real, too painful, never pandering to smooth the rough edges from the experience. After all, in real life there is no one there to soften the blows teenagers inflict upon each other. The children in this film are cruel, merciless and extraordinarily naive, just like we all were at that age.

In the end the film neither condemns nor condones the paths any of the characters choose. What we see is simply the aftermath, for good and evil, of the choices they all make. Who gets the girl, who doesn't. Who has suffered the most, who wins, who gets left by the wayside. One gets a sense that even though the last few frames are positive and happy that this is simply the calm before the storm. We're sorry in a way to have to leave where we do because even in this boring little town with nothing to do, there seems to be so much more story to tell.

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