Show Me Love (Sweden, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hollywood films about teenage girls invariably focus on two things: boyfriends and popularity. It's not surprising, since those two aspects of high school life comprise a significant portion of the average teenager's existence. With hormones raging and bodies changing, girls struggle for a means - any means - to bolster their self-esteem. Few ways are more effective than being part of a social circle and having admirers of the opposite sex. When approached with sensitivity and intelligence, this is potentially rich and stirring material, but American filmmakers are often less interested in delving deeply into the psyches of their characters than in presenting lightweight, feel-good romantic comedies that will appeal to the target audience. For that reason, most Hollywood-produced teen movies have a manufactured, formulaic feel. They deny reality and go for the safe, neatly-packaged fantasy. Every boy is Prince Charming. Every ugly duckling turns into Cinderella. And the two dance at the prom as a prelude to living happily ever after.

Show Me Love, the feature debut of Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, is not bound by those constraints. It's a powerful, deeply affecting depiction of the tribulations of two teenage girls who are struggling with their sexuality and identities. By forming a deep emotional bond between the audience and the protagonists, Moodysson develops a simple, cliche-free drama that contains great truth. Show Me Love has a romantic element, but it is not the sanitized version prevalent in Hollywood films. Instead, Moodysson captures the uncertainty, anguish, heartbreak, and giddy highs that accompany a first love. And we don't just observe this happening; we feel it along with the characters. The fact that the romance is between two girls only intensifies the emotions, because both participants face the possibility of being ostracized. Yet Show Me Love is less about lesbianism than it is about self-discovery. The movie might have been less provocative with a traditional girl/boy romance, but it would have worked as effectively on an emotional level.

16-year old Agnes (Rebecka Liljeberg) is a loner living in the small, dead-end town of Amal. Perhaps the worst place on Earth, and certainly the most boring (or so many of the underage inhabitants believe), Amal is a backwards hamlet that always seems to be a step behind the rest of the world. Despite having attended the school in Amal for the nearly two years since her family moved there, Agnes has no friends. Although attractive, she does little to care for her appearance, and rumors are making their way through the classrooms and hallways that she likes girls. However, while the nature of Agnes' sexuality has yet to fully emerge, she has a deep crush on a fellow female student, the pretty and popular Elin (Alexandra Dahlstrom), a precocious 14-year old who is every boy's wet dream. And, like Agnes, Elin despises Amal. One night, prodded by her older sister, Jessica (Erica Carlson), Elin plays a practical joke on Agnes by kissing her on the lips. Giggling, Jessica and Elin race away, leaving a stunned and hurt Agnes behind. Later that evening, however, Elin feels remorse, and returns to Agnes' house to apologize. She arrives just as Agnes is making a halfhearted attempt to slit her wrists. The two end up spending most of the night together, talking and sharing their innermost thoughts, and their unplanned "date" ends with a real kiss. The next day, frightened by her feelings for Agnes and determined to assert her heterosexuality, Elin nabs the willing Johan (Mathias Rust) as a boyfriend and ignores Agnes, who is understandably devastated.

Show Me Love is an emotional roller-coaster ride for viewers of both genders and all sexual orientations, because the feelings it uncovers are universal in nature. No matter how far removed an individual is from high school, this film has the ability to strip away the years. And, although Moodysson is obviously sympathetic towards both of his protagonists, he does not hesitate to show the mean and selfish sides of their natures. The adults (chiefly Agnes' parents) are not presented as boorish clods; they are helpful and sensitive to the needs of their children. The script's perceptiveness provides us with a fresh, non-manufactured perspective on what it means to be a bored teenager. And it gets the details right. Too many movies about this stage of life aren't concerned with the little things. (In one scene, Jessica and Elin are grounded while their mother is at work. Of course, they sneak out, but, to fool their mother, they gobble down the available snack foods to make it look like they were in all evening, munching on chips and watching TV.)

Both Rebecka Liljeberg and Alexandra Dahlstrom deserve a commendation for their natural, unforced portrayal of girls who, despite outward dissimilarities, are not so different on the inside. Liljeberg's Agnes does little to hide her uncertainty and pain. Dahlstrom's Elin, on the other hand, is just as confused as Agnes, but she puts on a show of false bravado to hide her turmoil. These two are at their most real when they're with each other, and it's during those scenes that both actresses sparkle. When it comes to chemistry, Likjeberg and Dahlstrom have it, and it's difficult not to root for their characters to find some way to steal a few moments together.

Released overseas with the attention-getting title of Fucking Amal, Show Me Love became a film festival favorite and an international box office success. It has not fared well in this country, however, due to the lack of an influential distributor. Strand Releasing, which owns the U.S. rights, is doing what it can to ship prints around the country, but the company's financial resources are limited. It's a shame that so few audiences will have an opportunity to see Show Me Love. Not only is this the most dramatically sound depiction of the life struggles of adolescent girls since Alex and Sylvia Sichel's 1997 indie picture, All Over Me, but it is one of the most honest and heartfelt teen dramas ever to grace the screen.

Show Me Love (Sweden, 1998)

Director: Lukas Moodysson
Cast: Alexandra Dahlstrom, Rebecka Liljeberg, Mathias Rust, Erica Carlson
Screenplay: Lukas Moodysson
Cinematography: Ulf Brantas
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2000
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-15
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Swedish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1