One of the best things about Lukas Moodysson’s directorial debut Show Me Love (Swedish title: Fucking Åmål, 1998), is that even though I grew up with it, it has continued to grow along with me. Until I saw it again last night, I just thought that meant that it had stayed in my memory all these years, but there’s something deeper at display here. The spirited and earnest teen drama was simple and empathetic enough to work as a tale about self-acceptance and self-doubt when I was a searching 13 year old taking part in the public mass hysteria that the movie’s popularity caused in Scandinavia in early 1999. No matter what I thought about my sexual orientation, it was comforting to watch a movie so universal in its appeal and approach to teen romance that it made peers of mine declare, with their very straight faces, that the movie made them want to be lesbians. Show Me Love didn’t glorify or exoticize,it just made it seem natural. So natural, in fact, that it took until now, eleven years hence and far remove from the mass hysteria of its release, to fully appreciate it as a gay movie.
Usually, it’s a little scary to rewatch movies I used to love when I was younger. There is always a chance that I’ll end up deflating a great memory. To take one example, I for many years lived on this earth believing that the Keanu Reeves action vehicle Speed was actually a great movie, because I’d loved it when I was 12. I now know that twelve year olds just aren’t particularly smart. I also used to think Val Kilmer should have a brilliant career, since I liked him so much in the 1997 The Saint remake. That too was wrong (it says something when I have to admit that the lion hunter movie The Ghost and the Darkness with Kilmer and Michael Douglas was a more entertaining experience). And when I sat down to rewatch the Mighty Ducks trilogy recently, not even that old favorite held up, at all. So rewatching can be painful. I’m not even sure I would recommend it, unless you’re relatively sure you’ll like the experience. If not, it might be best to live in the false belief that Face/Off actually was pretty good.
Rewatching Show Me Love had some things in common with those experiences, but in the opposite way. Instead of feeling ashamed that I had ever loved it, I was just surprised by how much the way I experienced it had changed over the years. The story of the lesbian high schooler Agnes love for Elin, and their attempts to be friends and accept themselves was of course inspiring even then, but mostly in a straightforwardly plot-driven way. I simply rooted for them as young people trying to fight prejudice and find self-acceptance. It was a love story. In a way things were easier then. Now, of course, I cannot help but view it as a gay love story, and what I know about gayness has given me some things to look for in their relationship. The first time I saw it, for instance, I don’t think I was really convinced that Elin, the insecure but positive and fun-loving girl the more reserved Agnes is in love with, really could be a lesbian. And to the extent that I had perceived it as a gay film at all, I was convinced that Show Me Love for the most part was a movie about how hard it is to be gay. Thus, I was now struck to find so few signs of that in the movie. Agnes may be disgusted with herself, at one point she even attempts to cut her wrists, but to me that had more to do with desperation that Elin didn’t seem to respect and love her, than the fact that she’s gay in itself.
That Show Me Love didn’t feel like a particularly gay love story, probably also had to do with the almost casual way Moodyson’s handled Agnes’ lesbianism. I actually had to replay the scene in which Agnes implicitly comes out to Elin several times, to make sure that was actually what I saw. In an earlier scene, Elin asks Agnes if the rumors that she’s a lesbian are true, and Agnes offers a wordless non-denial. Later, Agnes takes it a step further. Elin asks if Agnes thinks she is pretty enough to be a model, and Agnes answers with a yes. And then, finally, the clincher:
Elin: – Have you been with many girls?
Agnes (defensively): Why do you ask me that? No, I haven’t “been with many girls”, if you have to know. When you kissed me, it was my first.
Elin: That’s not fair! It’s just because we live in fucking Åmål. If you had lived in Stockholm, I’m sure you could have been with any girl you wanted.
It’s a truly magnificent scene. From that scene on, the movie changes. The prospect of a ‘it’s hard being gay’ movie is gone, Agnes is out, and it even contains some small hint that Elin may be interested in her. You can see how Agnes immediately starts to loosen up around Elin, and what a relief it is for her to finally get to admit to being a lesbian. Elin starts coming more into focus, as she tries to grapple with her burgeoning feelings for Agnes. Unlike Agnes, who doesn’t have many friends and who’s somewhat feared at her school as the mysterious lesbian, Elin is popular, and sexually suggestive, which means that she also has a fiercely heterosexual image to take care of. Moodysson has an acute eye for how teenagers react and interact with each other, and together with his talented actresses, he succeeds in making the two protagonists into real people of flesh and blood, without ever coming off as trying to exploit their lack of emotional distance to their own problems.
It’s apparent everywhere, really, and particularly in the smaller roles. Few things are funnier and/or more tragically pathetic than parents who don’t know how they can possibly be more supportive of their children, but who just don’t have a clue about how to get through to them. Agnes’ dad is a case in point. Sensing that she doesn’t have many friends, he tries to smooth things over by telling a story about how he wasn’t the most popular guy in high school either, but at the 25 year reunion, the most popular guys in school turned out to be less accomplished than him, to which Agnes replies that she’d rather be popular now than in 25 years. He doesn’t have an answer. Or Agnes’ mother, who carefully explains to her youngest son that there’s nothing wrong with being gay, but who freaks out when she understands that he’s actually asking about Agnes. Both are very human and protective reactions, adding to the sense of honesty that permeates every scene. Moodysson’s sympathy is simultaneously with the parents and the kids who are embarrassed by them.
His eye for the ways in which socially insecure people assert themselves is another one of Moodysson’s great strengths. By varying the rhythm of the cuts and leaving the camera on their insecure faces for the painful extra second, he captures them perfectly. Take the girl in the wheelchair who seems to be Agnes’ only friend in school. When Agnes’ embarrasses her in front of her parents, their friendship sours, and she uses every possible chance to say bad things about Agnes to other people. What makes it so painful to watch, however, is that we can clearly see that she doesn’t speak from a position of strength. She’s simply trying to0 hard to fit in, in a way so obvious that the people she’s talking to eventually blow her off.
Or take the relationship between Johan, the guy Elin hooks up with while trying to sort out her feelings for Agnes, and Markus, Elin’s sister’s boyfriend (who I kind of had a crush on, since he looked a little like Nick Carter). There’s nothing wrong with Johan, he’s just completely dependent on his buddy’s approval before he weighs in on anything, which makes him seem sort of pathetic. But still, there’s a twist with his presence. I’ve seen plenty of movies in which gays are devastated to discover that their dream guy is straight, but here it’s finally the other way around: Johan, who no doubt is deeply in love with Elin, is crushed to see that Elin is a lesbian. In this case it doesn’t matter if she’s exclusively gay or not. For Johan, the result is the same.
Looking back, Show Me Love has taken on greater importance for me in other ways as well. Most importantly, it’s a reminder of a time when Lukas Moodysson still wanted people to watch his movies. Having followed up Show Me with the humanist comedy Together, he turned around completely and made some movies that where downright hostile to the audience. I’m not thinking of the heartbreaking Lilja 4-ever here, although it’s certainly hard to watch, but he really lost me with Container and A Hole in My Heart. I know from experience that you should never write off someone with a talent like his, but unlike he regain his trust in mankind (the somewhat clunky Mammoth was a start), I’ll do my best to talk up his early works. Not many directors change my worldview, but in 1999, Lukas Moodysson did.