A compelling portrait of a young woman and her global mission
Dir. Nathan Grossman. Sweden. 2020. 97 mins.
Somewhere near the start of I Am Greta, Nathan Grossman’s camera frames a small, awkward but determined 15 year-old girl sitting on the ground just across the street from the Swedish parliament building, looking more like a vagrant than a protestor. Beside her is a placard that reads, in Swedish, ‘SCHOOL STRIKE FOR CLIMATE CHANGE’. Passers-by eye her with hostility or bemusement, or stop to chat, tell her she should be at school, keep her company. This has to be a reconstruction, surely? Greta Thurnberg’s solitary protest would build into a global movement that mobilised and energised millions of young people, but back then, in August 2018, who knew?
What is so compelling is the picture I Am Greta pieces together of Thunberg herself
It’s not just being in the right place at the right time that makes Grossman’s portrait of Thunberg such an absorbing watch. (Though it’s never made clear in a film where the director/cameraman is rarely a felt presence. Apparently pure instinct led him to start filming the teenager’s lone vigil for what he thought would be a day or two). What is so compelling is the picture I Am Greta pieces together of Thunberg herself. Because this isn’t a climate change issue film in the mould of An Inconvenient Truth or Before the Flood, although it also puts that message across in the course of a stirring screen journey that culminates in Thunberg’s blistering address to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York in September 2019. This is essentially an uplifting, inspirational story about a girl with Asperger’s who turns her difference from ‘normal kids’ into a strength.
This intimate side of Grossman’s documentary will almost certainly propelI Am Greta into homes and cinemas after its Venice and Toronto festival debuts. The film launches on November 13 in the US on streaming service Hulu, but Dogwoof has sold it worldwide, and it will begin a theatrical run from the weekend of October 16 in the UK, Italy, Canada, Germany and several other territories.
Thunberg is rarely offscreen, and one thing that we realise, a little guiltily, is how the strength and determination she displays when berating world leaders, with that set jaw and those fiery accusing eyes, comes from a lonely, vulnerable place. It’s not that she’s unhappy or maladjusted, but she’s the kind of ‘weird’ kid (as she herself reveals in hesitant voice over) who gets ostracised at school. She’s more at home grooming her dogs or resting her head against the flank of a favourite pony than in the company of people, and her father reveals that at one point she talked to nobody but close family and pets for three years.
Our unspoken prejudices about how much Thunberg may be manipulated by her parents – voiced aloud here in intercut footage of TV pundits and political leaders from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro attacking or ridiculing the teenager – are challenged by scenes in which her father, Svante, talks about his and his wife’s opposition to the initial school strike idea, and others which show Thunberg writing and revising her speeches with a command of the English language which is both impressive and obsessive (as she understates at one point, “I notice details”).
The long-haired Svante is both father, road manager and confidant to his daughter, but far from “exploiting” her, as one right-wing TV commentator suggests, he seems constantly concerned that she’s pushing herself too far as her lone protest builds into an avalanche and he begins to travel around Europe with her by train and car (Thunberg’s refusal to contribute to global warming by taking planes is well known). Sometimes dad puts his foot down, persuading his daughter to eat something when she’s too wired to want to, or sending her into a sulk with some criticism: as she buries her pig-tailed head in a pillow, she seems for a moment more five than fifteen. At other times, he and the rest of the family seem as admiringly fascinated by the prodigy they’ve produced as French president Emmanuel Macron, who during a meeting with Thunberg and other school-age climate change activists at the Elysee Palace in Paris seems every inch the star-struck fan.
Deftly and fluidly edited, with an unobtrusive musical soundtrack that underscores its crescendo rhythm,I Am Greta follows a classic story arc. It even incorporates a pre-finale crisis as the anti-Greta backlash mounts and dad is seen attending an emergency response class. This dark night of the soul culminates in that Atlantic crossing, on a stripped-down racing yacht that seems a perfect simulacrum of Thunberg herself: ploughing an straight course through stormy seas but with the thinnest shell separating it from the depths.
Production company: BR-F
International sales: Dogwoof, email@example.com
Producers: Cecilia Nessen and Fredrik Heinig
Editing: Hanna Lejonqvist, Charlotte Landelius
Cinematography: Nathan Grossman
Music: Jon Ekstrand, Rebekka Karijord