Knowing What Love Is
Teen romances are a dime a dozen in the U.S. They tend to focus on themes like alienation, individuality, and rebellion against parents, society, and/or high school cliques. Show Me Love focuses on all these themes and so could be counted as a classic American teenage love story. This is notable because the movie is not U.S.-made, but Swedish, and because the love story concerns two girls. Show Me Love is also remarkable because it tells this story with complexity and emotional truth, something that strikes me as a rarity in the genre. It must have struck other folks as well, because Show Me Love was Sweden’s 1998 Oscar entry, and was number one at the box office in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. It even rivaled the titanic Titanic in attendance in some countries.
Written and directed by first-timer Lukas Moodysson, Show Me Love features Rebecca Liljeberg as Agnes, a school outcast who is rumored to be a lesbian. In fact, she is, and she has a massive crush on popular Elin (Alexandria Dahlstrom). After pretending to like Agnes on a dare (and kissing her during the charade), Elin finds that she actually does like her. When Elin reveals her feelings, Agnes’ face reveals a war of emotions going on within her is this change in Elin just another trick, or a dream coming true? After the nightmare of the fake kiss, the girls’ first real kiss in the backseat of a car with Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” blaring on the soundtrack is exhilarating. “What are we doing?” asks Agnes. “I don’t know, but we are so fucking cool,” is Elin’s answer. Unfortunately, kissing a girl doesn’t seem so cool in the cold, hard light of high school in the small town of Amal. And so Elin freaks out, refusing to speak to Agnes and dating Johan (Mathias Rust). Although we can be certain that the girls will get together (because the film is, after all, working within the teen romance formula), Agnes’ misery during Elin’s panic is heartbreaking. Show Me Love‘s interpretation of this formulaic tale is unique because of the filmmakers’ unusual attention to the characters, their refusal to simplify or glamorize what is so often made simplistic and glamorous.
Where in standard teen romances, the characters are rendered in shorthand (jocks and nerds are stock characters, as are the so-called “outcasts” who are so clearly real-life prom queens and kings), Show Me Love gets beyond types. Instead, characters are allowed depth and frailty. Agnes is intense and lonely, her misery palpable. She also has an inner strength that lets her take great leaps of faith, such as trusting Elin after her deceptions and reversals. Agnes’ refusal to give up hope isn’t only naive: she knows full well the possible consequences (having been through them before), and the audience sees her waiver at each choice (to trust or not to trust).
By seeming contrast, Elin is a wild party-girl who appears shallow at first. She’s willing to do any drink or drug (even Alka Seltzer) and make out with tons of guys (which has lead to her reputation as “easy,” although she is a virgin) to escape the boredom of “fucking Amal” (the film’s original title). These distractions don’t provide escape, though. Elin is still tired of her partying friends, and when clueless Johan tells her she is beautiful (just after she has thrown up because she’s had too much alcohol), the look on her face expresses not just irritation at his inappropriate timing, but utter disdain and disinterest.
Unlike Agnes, Elin has not lived with secret angst or confusion about her sexuality, but she does feel limited by the town, the boys in it (who only seem interested in comparing the size and shape of their cell phones), and the unfulfilling life she sees around and ahead of her. Her mother stays home at night and watches strangers win the lottery on television, and many of the boys in her circle (and girls too, by acquiescence) have uninspired visions for the future (her varied dreams for future careers are routinely put down as ridiculous) and rigid notions of gender roles. Her sister’s boyfriend, Markus (Stefan Horberg), asserts that boys are interested in technology, like cell phones, and that girls are good at things like “make-up and looking good.” After hooking up with Agnes (or rather, after becoming aware of the possibility of hooking up with Agnes), Elin realizes suddenly that she has options other than just flitting from one boring beau to another and settling for a life she has not chosen for herself.
Admirably and unusually, the film also allows its secondary characters multiple dimensions: even the boring beaus are treated with some sympathy. Johan seems young and a bit lost: we concur with Elin’s disinterest in him, but not because he is a bad guy. When Elin gives Markus a dressing-down for his sexist assertions about the differences between boys and girls, it’s clear that Johan doesn’t know what to say. The film implies that the role models and attitudes most available to boys are pretty restricted and that it takes maturity and thoughtfulness to imagine beyond them (which Johan, at 15 or 16, doesn’t have).
Show Me Love even cuts the parents some slack, unlike many teen films where adults are clueless jokes or absent jerks. Agnes’ father (Ralph Carlsson) tries to understand and help her. Knowing his daughter is unhappy, he tells her that in 25 years, high school hierarchies won’t matter. She responds like any teenager might: “But that is in 25 years.” The future will be different and the present is what matters: the movie allows that both perspectives are right. Agnes’ mother is no cardboard cutout, either. She displays tolerance when defining “lesbian” for Agnes’ younger brother, but she’s also shocked when she learns that her own daughter is one.
Homophobia can be deep and subtle, and tolerance isn’t acceptance. We have no doubt that Agnes’ parents care for her. But we also see their limits, their inability to comfort her or understand her sense of difference from them. This communication gap is presented as a complex phenomenon, resulting from the temporary emotional upheavals that come with adolescence, as well as deep-rooted social problems, like homophobia. But the gap is not used as an excuse to dismiss the parents or teach the kids a moral lesson.
This isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. Its broad-mindedness leads to some fumbling in its treatment of Viktoria (Josefin Nybert), a wheelchair-bound girl who is, like Agnes, an outcast at school. Agnes and Viktoria are friendly until one agonizing scene where Agnes berates Viktoria, who is the only guest to show up at her 16th birthday party, for being a loser and for being handicapped. We understand Agnes’ frustration, but her rancor is difficult to watch and her target undeserving. Viktoria’s reaction, which is to spread rumors about Agnes both to get back at her and to make inroads with the in-crowd, is also understandable because she is hurt and feels betrayed. The film convincingly illustrates how those at the bottom of the social ladder can turn on one another due to the anguish of being there, and this portrayal is consistent with the film’s general thoughtfulness and complexity.
But this incident also reveals the potential problems with asking viewers to identify so fully with only one of these bottom-rung characters, in that Agnes’ cruelty to Viktoria is minimized because of the way the film represents Viktoria’s later behavior. Viktoria refuses to accept Agnes’ apology, and is then almost disappeared from the movie, seen only initiating gossip about Agnes. She becomes another obstacle for Agnes, and a casualty of Agnes’ eventual triumph over same. Given the film’s attention to emotional details elsewhere, the Viktoria storyline feels cut off, as if she’s been used to make a point and then abandoned.
I am always more forgiving, though, when a movie’s shortcomings result from attempted complexity. And as far as shortcomings go, this is a small one. Show Me Love‘s impeccable acting and hand-held camerawork (though this is no dark and shaky Blair Witch Project, I promise) paint an incredibly vivid picture of high school, to which most viewers can relate (even if you aren’t Swedish, even if you aren’t lesbian). What makes a story seem “universal” is not that we share a same specific experience or identity, but that we all experience the emotions that a specific experience can evoke. This is how so many queer viewers are able to appreciate straight tv shows or movies.
Show Me Love is one of those films that feels “universal,” not because it represents lesbians as “just like everybody else,” but because “everybody else” can feel what these characters feel. It is just an added pleasure of Show Me Love that it may be straight folks who are finding representations of themselves in a “lesbian love story,” rather than the other way around.