Much has been made of the fact that the Swedish film Show Me Love (directed by Lukas Moodysson and originally titled F–king Amal) was so popular when it premiered in 1998 that it unseated Titanic at the box office in some countries.
But the two films actually have more in common than their success, for they both tell stories of love and courage in the midst of the worst of human nature. In Titanic, the betrayal, greed, and mob mentality is triggered by impending death; in Show Me Love, it's triggeredy by puberty.
The movie follows Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg) and Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), two high school girls stuck in the small town Swedish town of Amal, which they despise (hence the original name). Agnes is in love with classmate Elin, who barely knows Agnes exists until Elin kisses her on a dare one night and sets in motion a chain of events that will force them both to make significant decisions.
When the film opens, Elin and Agnes are drowning in the inevitability and narrow-mindedness of their world, where girls are not encouraged to dream big, but to cultivate expertise in "appearance, clothes, and makeup" and other support functions:
ELIN: Do you know what my nightmare is? That I'll live here in Fucking Åmål and have a family and children and a car and a house…all those things. And then my husband will leave me for a younger and prettier girl, so I'm just left with screaming children. It's completely meaningless!
That this same complaint is made by legions of girls in small towns and suburbs across America is just one of the reasons this film cuts across national and cultural boundaries so well. Show Me Love is as much about the universally stultifying effects of sexism on girls as it is about homophobia or love.
On the surface, Elin is a popular, life-of-the-party type of girl, but she exhibits all the characteristics of a girl on the verge of coming out. Her extensive forays into heterosexuality have left her bored, even as her sister chides her for making out with "seventy-thousand" guys.
Elin is desperately searching for something that she can't quite name, and unable to find it, she's drinking and experimenting halfheartedly with drugs to escape. She blames the town, but as she illustrates in conversation with Agnes, what Elin is really fighting is herself:
ELIN: Why are you so weird? I mean, you're not stupid or anything, just different.
AGNES (smiling): You are weird too.
ELIN: Am I? I mean, I want to be weird. Or not weird, but I don't want to be like all the others. Though sometimes I think I'm just like everyone else.
It is precisely because Agnes is so different that Elin is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by her.
Elin (Alexandra Dahlström), left, and Agnes (Rebecca Liljeberg)
But Agnes is busy fighting demons of her own, and unlike Elin, she doesn't have a sister or friends with whom to commiserate. She's a loner, pouring her heart out to her computer while fending off questions from her well-meaning parents. Agnes does hang out with a wheelchair-bound girl Viktoria occasionally, but their relationship quickly disintegrates when Agnes takes out her frustrations on Viktoria after a disappointing birthday party:
AGNES (to Viktoria): You can go home and take your perfume with you. We are friends only because no one else wants to be our friend. We are friends only because we feel sorry for each other.
That the film dares to show such cruelty in Agnes is unusual since the audience is supposed to sympathize with Agnes, and the cruelty she displays towards Viktoria is not exactly endearing.