Lena Dunham’s warm, vibrant 1994 adaptation of Karen Cushman’s historical novel Catherine, Called Birdy opens with a pinprick that references another classic teen film. Misty Miller’s cover of the 90’s Supergrass song “Alright” stars as young Lady Catherine (aka Birdy), played by Bella Ramsey from “Game of Thrones”, reunites with her medieval English village in the midst of a mud fight during a noisy hut raising.
The song selection (one of the few great ’90s covers Miller performs throughout the film) is a high-five to Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film Clueless, and makes the two films inseparable. One is an adaptation of a novel written in the 1990s and set in the Middle Ages, the other is based on a Regency-era novel by Jane Austen and is set in the 1990s, but both films are about a virgin who cannot drive a car. The reference is a nice way of reminding us, as Catherine Called Birdy often does, that the problems plaguing girlhood are often the same regardless of era.
Dunham has called adapting the book a long-standing passion project, and the care and love she has for the story and characters – both in writing and directing – is palpable. Like Clueless, it’s a film that feels effortless, energetic and dynamic; It’s wordy, witty, and wise, and begs to be revisited as often as possible.
The film has a flowing naturalism and energy that starts off the page and flows through the movement of the camera and the physicality of the actors. Dunham nailed the language and tone of this piece. The writing is sharp, clear, in a distinct voice, but never overly explicit; it’s modern and relatable, yet utterly medieval. Anachronistic songs may punctuate these events, but the trials and tribulations and creative curses Birdy envisions are all feudal England.
Birdy navigates this difficult moment of not being a girl, not a woman yet. She stuffs her menstrual rags on the floor of the outhouse to hide them, because getting her period is a high-stakes affair. That means her father, the cowardly and jolly Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), can marry her off to the highest bidder to save the manor’s finances. Birdy rebels out of defiance, but also out of fear of the woman’s life. Their mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), struggles to have healthy babies.
Catherine Called Birdy is a chronicle of this distinct transitional period, as recounted by Birdy herself in a journal for her brother Edward (Archie Renaux), a monk. When a suitor comes to visit, Birdy tries to foil the marriage plan as best she can with pranks and capers, relying on her best friends Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) while she meets her brother Robert ( Dean-Charles) fights Chapman) and occasionally pines for her handsome Uncle George (Joe Alwyn).
But while the plot grapples with the purpose and function of marriage, the story of “Catherine Called Birdy” is the tale of a heartfelt familial love and bond, shared earnestly and with good humor by Ramsey, Piper, Chapman, Renaux and especially is expressed by Scott, who manages to make Rollo endearing with his pleas to marry off his daughter. The casting is one of the exceptional aspects of this film: Lesley Sharp and Sophie Okonedo give delightful performances as two of the mentors who help mold and guide Birdy outside of her family, while Paul Kaye from Game of Thrones has a great role lascivious antagonist.
Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham’s best written and directed work to date; It’s a light, breezy, emotional good time and an instant teen classic, just like its predecessor, Clueless. With her two excellent films from 2022, including Sharp Stick, it’s clear that even in a post-‘Girls’ world, Dunham will never finish capturing the inner workings of girls in all their playful, pragmatic and poignant complexities to investigate.
Katie Walsh is a film critic for the Tribune News Service.
“Catherine named Birdy”
Rated: PG-13, for some stimulating materials and thematic elements
Duration: 1 hour 48 minutes
To play: Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles; Lammle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; Century Huntington Beach; Streaming October 7th on Prime Video
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-23/review-catherine-called-birdy-lena-dunham-teen-drama ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ review: Lena Dunham’s instant teen classic