Adolescence is a pain. Always has been, always will be. Just ask Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), the only daughter of a layabout lord in Medieval England. Life is tough for Catherine, nicknamed Birdy, as she explains via her diary. Her family is broke, her brothers are annoying, and now she’s just started menstruating. That means she’s a woman now, apparently, and that means she’s old enough by her father’s standards to be married. The financial fate of their family depends on it, but that doesn’t mean Birdy plans to roll over and do what the world demands of her.
Based on the award-winning young adult novel by Karen Cushman, writer-director Lena Dunham’s latest film behind the camera (her second of 2022) seeks to find a comfortable place in the cinematic canon of unruly young women finding their place in an unfair life. The setting is unique but the story beats are comforting in their familiarity. Hey, it’s not like menstruation is a new concept, nor is the idea that girls should be ‘ladies’ and commit to docility in the aid of their dominant husbands. There are moments where it almost feels at risk of going staid but Dunham keeps a tight rein on her narrative, injecting it with the right balance of earnestness and acidity.
Bella Ramsey, who proved to be such a scene-stealer in Game of Thrones as a wise beyond her years leader, is a genuine delight in the title role. It’s not hard to see what drew Dunham to her (one of her most underrated qualities as a creator has been her savvy eye for casting.) Birdy is stubborn and witty in the way that only a 14-year-old can be. Knowing yet not cloying, standing toe-to-toe with the adults, Ramsay feels like a welcome call-back to many a sassy ’90s heroine.
While there have been some changes to the source material to make it more of a crowdpleaser for its intended demographic, Dunham wisely does not omit the grim reality of Birdy’s situation, even when the style embraces its anachronisms. Her father uses a rod to hit her hands when she disobeys him, a punishment she considers relatively acceptable given that her best friend’s father whips her. Her mother (the ever-luminous Billie Piper) is constantly pregnant but hasn’t had a baby survive beyond childbirth since Birdy. Nobody has taught her what ‘carnal pleasures’ are, even as the grotty old men who propose marriage to her bring it up with such casual glee. What is a girl in the Dark Ages to do, and how is a filmmaker to approach this without having to overexplain everything for fear of misinterpretation (let’s be honest, I wouldn’t blame Dunham for taking a hyper-cautious route with this story.)
Yet this is still a sparky, spunky, and familiarly teenage tale. Birdy is very much an adolescent with the same silliness and quandaries building up in her brain that many of us have struggled with for decades, centuries even. Her story is tough but still so full of joy, and there are many laughs to be had. The various ways she fends off her suitors make for the film’s comedic highlights, as does the committedly silly performance of Andrew Scott as Birdy’s father. Drunk, irresponsible, and in way over his head as a Lord, he’s half-antagonist, half-tragic figure. Scott knows a thing or two about dialling up the camp meter and he’s unafraid to do so here but clever enough to rein it in to remind us that this man is still human. Tonally, it feels more like A Knight’s Tale than Game of Thrones, with pop music interjections and on-text captions to describe every character (and an excellent use of one of Billie Piper’s songs from her era as a teen songstress.)
It’s easily the most mainstream thing Dunham has ever made and feels like a conscious effort on her part to appeal to the kind of audience she previously rejected with her pricklier efforts. That does mean that some of the bristlier edges of the book aren’t here, especially in the chipper third act that goes more for classic happy-ever-after than wistful melancholy. That will certainly put off some older viewers who may have grown up with the beloved novel. There’s certainly a case to be made that Dunham prized a more easy-to-package take on adolescent female liberation. Personally, I think she made a solid choice to place this material in a space of universality. It’s about teen heartache and familial tension and how much it sucks to bleed every month and ruin your knickers. It’s about testing the limits of what society will allow of you and how truly thrilling it can be to push against those boundaries. I imagine a lot of young people will feel as strong about this as I did for 10 Things I Hate About You as a pre-teen who thought she knew everything.
A lot of people will be put off Catherine Called Birdy because of the involvement of a pop culture lightning rod who has often proven to be a deeply difficult public presence to engage with. I don’t blame you if you want to sit her out, but speaking as someone who has always run cold on the Dunham oeuvre, I thought this one was a real delight and I hope it finds the audience it so eagerly seeks.
Catherine Called Birdy had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will be released on Amazon Video on October 7 and is currently playing in limited theaters.