TORONTO — Lena Dunham has found a new calling no one could have predicted: directing children’s films.
The controversial writer-director whose popular HBO The “Girls” series was notoriously full of nudity and sex moved into the coming-of-age genre with its charming comedy “Catherine Called Birdy,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Duration: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some suggestive and thematic elements). In theaters September 23. On Prime Video October 7.
Before you reflexively shield your kids’ eyes, know that Dunham’s latest effort is a reasonably apt mix of “Shrek” and “Brave” with the “bring out your dead!” aesthetic of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.
While the story, which she adapted from Karen Cushman’s novel, is quite mature in places, the PG-13 movie has an interesting “be yourself” message that everyone can follow. It is well done and infinitely sympathetic.
Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), who goes by the name Birdy, is a 14-year-old girl in 1290 England – and we first meet her during a slow-motion mud fight. Despite her tough attitude, she’s the perfect age for her father, Sir Rollo (Andrew Scott), to marry her off to a wealthy man to help pay off the debts he incurred by wasting money on necessities such as a wild tiger.
It will be a challenge, however. Dad yells, “She’s disgusting!” She’s one step away from a leper!
And Birdy doesn’t like sacred marriage either. She’s determined to scare off any suitors who come her way – all the while plotting with her friends Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) and wrongfully crushing her handsome Uncle George (Joe Alwyn, who was too cold to the screen lately. I miss “The Favorite” Alwyn).
There are darker, more realistic elements at play beyond the stuffing. Birdy’s mother (Billie Piper), for example, has struggled to have more children since Birdy was born and has suffered several miscarriages. Plus, one of the young teen’s male admirers is a creepy old dude she calls “Shaggy Beard.” Some parents might wince at this. But hey, it’s the Middle Ages. What do you want ? “The Wiggles”?
Dunham made a really appealing and cohesive film, merging his modern, punky sensibilities with the dirt and stone of the era. The music jumps seamlessly between Gregorian chants via “Glee” and pop tunes. The parent-child dynamic and speaking style in 13th-century England probably wasn’t so 2022, but there’s an emotional resonance to Dunham’s take on the material. Without forgetting a good dose of hilarity.
The cast is filled with talented comedians. Ramsey became a “Game of Thrones” star when she played that little spitfire Lyanna Mormont. As Birdy, she’s an irrepressible ball of rebellious energy who’s instantly endearing and brimming with wit. And Scott, a brilliant stage actor better known as the Hot Priest on “Fleabag,” is neurotic and funny at his best.
I’m glad to see Dunham, who seemed headed for the exit after HBO’s “Camping” and the off-putting mess “Sharp Stick” earlier this year, back in good shape. How nice it would be if this medieval film, which hits Prime Video on October 7, begins its revival.