Show Me Love

By Ezra Stead

Show Me Love, Sweden / Denmark, 1998

Written and Directed by Lukas Moodysson

Show Me Love is the best film you've probably never heard of.

This gentle, insightful and wonderfully realistic comedy-drama from Sweden gets my vote for best film you’ve probably never heard of. We here at Movies I Didn’t Get feel it is our responsibility to not only debate the merits of popular and overrated films that we didn’t get, but also to champion those that we did get, and which we feel are underrated, or in this case, simply not well enough known (we also like to just review movies, as you can see by scrolling through our archives). At any rate, amidst a constant stream of banal, exploitative and unconvincing teen movies, Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love stands out as a testament to the truth of living through that difficult age between twelve and nineteen, especially when one is perceived to be “different” for whatever reason. As the great Roger Ebert said of this beautiful, understated masterpiece, “this film loves teenagers; most teen movies just use them.” I rarely quote another critic, but this is so astute, I couldn’t resist.

Moodysson’s most well-known film is Lilya 4-Ever (2002), a harrowing tale of teen prostitution in Eastern Europe and the conditions that can lead to it, there or elsewhere. The first time I saw Show Me Love, I was not aware it was made by the same director and I had not yet seen any of his other films, which also include Together (2000) and A Hole in My Heart (2004), the latter of which is even more disturbing than Lilya. However, even without prior knowledge of Moodysson’s always excellent work, there is a sense of impending doom throughout his first feature, a feeling that something terrible might happen at any moment; this is, in many ways, a perfect representation of what it is like to be a teenager in modern times. 

The original Swedish title of this film is F**king Amal (Amal is the name of the town in which the protagonists live, not a person, so the “f**king” part is a disparaging adjective rather than a verb), and this points to the fact that the film is as much about the frustrations of living in a small, boring town as about those of growing up. Our protagonists are Elin Olsson (Alexandra Dahlstrom), a very pretty and popular girl who is too intelligent and searching to be content with her queen-bee status, and Agnes Ahlberg (Rebecca Liljeberg), her polar opposite on the social food chain. Agnes is one of the school’s scapegoats, a social pariah whose only friend is Viktoria (Josefin Nyberg), a wheelchair-bound girl who, for this reason, is similarly outcast. Agnes is constantly teased and tormented at school, with persistent rumors circulating that she is a lesbian; the fact that this is actually true, and that she is infatuated with Elin, only makes things more difficult for her.

Agnes and Elin’s paths irrevocably cross at a birthday party for Agnes, which Elin attends with her sister, Jessica (Erica Carlson), who convinces Elin to kiss Agnes as a joke, after which the two quickly abandon Agnes for a much livelier and more exclusive party filled with other, more popular teens. Consumed by remorse for the hurt feelings her actions have caused, Elin returns to apologize to Agnes, and the two begin a tentative friendship / courtship constantly in flux due to the many social pressures on both. Elin reluctantly agrees to date Johan Hulth (Mathias Rust), a naïve, sweetly clumsy older boy who is friends with Jessica’s rather arrogant and obnoxious boyfriend, Markus (Stefan Horberg), in order to divert attention from her own growing attraction to Agnes. Poor Johan genuinely believes himself to be in true love with Elin, in the way only teenagers can, while Markus is a budding macho-misogynist, not so much through his own thoughts and feelings, but as a result of the social pressures all around him.

It is a testament to the film’s richness that even relatively minor characters like Markus are so convincingly fleshed out. Moodysson’s films are never populated with convenient types or easy answers, and no one in this film is so simplistic as to be completely “good” or “bad.” When Agnes takes out her frustrations with her friendless, bottom-rung existence on the social ladder on Viktoria during her failed birthday party (at which, before Elin and Jessica arrive, she is the only guest), it is painful to watch, and in a lesser film such a moment might be used to make the audience dislike her character. However, when she says, “We’re just pretend friends because there’s no one else to be with,” we understand the sad truth of her harangue, as well as the motivation for it; Agnes is unfair to attack such an undeserving target, but we are unable to think less of her for it, for she is really just a confused child trying to make sense of the pain and alienation that surround her. Likewise, Viktoria is no more the helpless victim of Agnes’s rage than she is deserving of it, and when she later uses her knowledge of Agnes’s true feelings for Elin to try and ingratiate herself with the popular crowd, we cannot feel anything but sympathy for her; her instantly failed maneuver into a social circle of which she will never truly be a part actually only makes her all the more sympathetic, even though it is also an attempt to avenge Agnes’s earlier betrayal, for which Agnes has unsuccessfully attempted to apologize.

There are too many rich and heartfelt threads to this story to fully elaborate upon them here, and all are handled with such a unique subtlety and truth that it is pointless to attempt to do so. I have rarely seen a film made up entirely of adult actors with such truthful and convincing performances, and Moodysson’s script steadfastly and admirably refuses to rely on cliches or contrivances. With high school bullying and gay rights issues more at the forefront of the collective consciousness than ever, this is still a timely and important film that I think everyone should see. There is not a frame in the entire movie that contains less than complete, uncompromised honesty.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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