What if you set a John Hughes-inspired comedy in the Middle Ages? This is what Lena Dunham attempts in Catherine Called Birdy, an irreverent PG-13 romp which retains the filmmaker’s feminist themes and comic sensibilities while employing some Monty Python-esque satire. Taking a detour from her usual route of sexually obsessed, twentysomething urbanites (Girls, Tiny Furniture), Dunham might surprise audiences with this medieval fable about Birdy, a rebellious teen who’s as plucky as her nickname. For a filmmaker who’s ruffled many feathers (no pun intended) with her unbridled opinions and controversies, Dunham might’ve taken her most brazen step yet by making a kid’s movie. Tweets be damned, a movie for kids? Now, that’s provocative.
Adapted from Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel of the same name, the movie follows 14-year-old Catherine (Bella Ramsey), otherwise known as Birdy due to her winged pets (and the obvious metaphor of being caged in her station). Dunham establishes a playful tone for a movie that feels like Clueless by way of Excalibur; electropop versions of songs by Mazzy Star and Rod Stewart play as the camera swooshes through mud-caked villages and dank castles. Birdy’s narration is quick-witted and sporadic as she introduces us to her family, servants, and friends, all of whom have title cards which list their virtues and iniquities. Sadly, these captions lose their charm quickly, as do a lot of stylistic choices in this movie.
Dunham still does a good job in showing that 13th century England plainly sucks for teenage girls. While boys get to swordplay and roll in the mud, girls are expected to behave in ways that befit a lady, which mostly means getting prepped for marriage. Bristling against these feudal laws, Birdy spends the rest of the movie thumbing her nose at a system that threatens to murder her dreams. A brash tomboy adverse to embroidering as she is learning Latin, Birdy runs roughshod through her village causing general mayhem with her best friend, Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), which is usually to the dismay of her parents, Lord Rollo (Fleabag’s Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislin (Billie Piper), who is reeling from a string of miscarriages. Even if it speaks to the awful condition for women in that era, the subplot regarding her mother’s miscarriages is disturbing in a children’s movie. Imagine if Pretty in Pink included scenes regarding Harry Dean Stanton’s ulcers.
When her family faces financial ruin, Birdy’s father is forced to marry her off to collect a dowry and save their estate from ruin. She quickly sabotages this plan by making a fool of herself to every would-be suitor that comes knocking. This is the best part of the movie since it gives Birdy a stage to express her tongue-in-cheek humor without interrupting the narrative. These scenes fly by, including a wasted moment with Russell Brand. Instead, we’re flung back to Birdy’s languid, teenage world, in which she hides the monthly evidence of menstruation, relentlessly teases her younger brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman), and suspects her best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) of crushing on her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), who she also has appears to have feelings for. These moments just sit there like lumps of coal waiting to be ignited.
A coming-of-age yarn and a satire about the Middle Ages, the film does have a few laugh-out-loud moments. Dunham’s screenplay works best when exploring the latter. Take the scene when Birdy swoons over her Uncle George with an impassioned, “Only if he were my cousin!” During those moments, you wish Dunham went full Monty Python and discarded the sentimental fluff.
The most glaring issue is Birdy herself. Although Bella Ramey (Game of Thrones) is a gifted actress, she can’t do much with a character who starts at ten and doesn’t stop until the credits roll. Although her abrasive personality and constant screeching is supposed to be taken as basic adolescent angst, she’s more mean-spirited and annoying than empathetic. The movie could’ve used some quieter moments where we get to know Birdy and her imaginative world. They would also give us some reprieve from the noise and the new faces that pop up. Seriously, there are way too many actors here. It’s like a preteen version of The Big Chill or Nashville, but set in the Middle Ages, and on steroids.
Much like Dunham’s Sharp Stick, which also started with a bang before chugging off into the void, Birdy loses its thread in the second act. Besides the slapdash narrative, which splinters off in several directions, the pacing is erratic. At times, you feel like you’re in a car with someone driving stick for the first time. It stops, then jolts forward, then pulls back. Again, the issue seems to lie in Dunham’s penchant for leaning into societal issues instead of simply telling the story. At one point, it feels like she’s speaking directly to you while you’re trying to lose yourself in the plot. It’s distracting.
In spite of its good intentions, Catherine Called Birdy’s lighthearted slapstick is oddly vacant and exhausting. By the end, you’ll be as spent as a 14-year-old after a day at Disneyland. You’ll also need a shower from all the mud and farting.
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