Given her association with portraying the challenges of modern women, Lena Dunham might be the last person you’d expect to be behind the camera on Amazon Prime Video’s medieval set Catherine named Birdy. But this cheeky teen comedy oozes with all the life and energy of the intergenerational works that made Dunham’s name. Undeterred by the demands of making a film on a bigger screen, she always finds where to let her wit and wisdom shine through.
The essentials: 14-year-old Catherine (Bella Ramsey), affectionately known as Birdy because she keeps many birds, quickly learns the limitations of being a strong-willed young woman in medieval England. She has an irrepressible spirit and zesty wit that resents the company she finds herself in. Birdy gets particularly caught up with her mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), who just wants her to be polite, and her father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), a slightly distant patriarch who is determined to marry off his daughter because of her status. But the film doesn’t address the pain of being a person ahead of her time, instead finding avenues for Birdy’s joyous expression of defiance and whimsical, diary-like observations of the world around her.
Which movies will it remind you of?: The most recent, and perhaps best known, example of a film that “transfers the contemporary attitude of teenagers into a historical setting” is Jane Austen’s poppy 2020 adaptation Emma. But Lena Dunham’s perfect distillation of the punk attitude of irreverent youth taps into a timeless energy that’s also reminiscent of films set in more familiar settings clueless, Simply Aor The Edge of Seventeen.
Notable performance: Much like how Dunham directed a whole host of colorful characters in her TV series girlHaving to pick a single performance from such a memorable bunch is like picking a favorite child. Among the supporting cast, Joe Alwyn, who plays a heartthrob oblivious to his stupidity, really stands out, as does Andrew Scott as Birdy’s fickle father. But the real star of the show is clearly Bella Ramsey in the title role, who draws us into the character’s thoughts and feelings through witty voice-over narration and engaging physical comedy. Ramsey masterfully captures Birdy’s main contradiction – she’s smart enough to describe everything that’s going on around her, but necessarily mature enough to do so understand it.
Memorable dialogue: Dunham’s sizzling script is so full of zingers and one-liners that again it feels impossible to single one out. Catherine named Birdy is one of those movies that only gets better with repeated viewing, because viewers can spot lines they missed the first time. A typical Birdy quote that sticks in your brain is a phrase that could serve as her motto: “My vacation would be short-lived, but my rebellion would be forever.”
gender and skin: There Catherine named Birdy is so intent on maintaining the childlike point of view of his protagonist that no sex can be seen. However, there are many indirect conversations and references to an adult world that Birdy is just beginning to understand. (There is a well-known “Birds and Bees”-style conversation given a medieval rendition as “Sword and Box.”)
Our opinion: If you’ve stepped off the Lena Dunham train at any point in the last decade, it’s time to get back on. Catherine named Birdy is an absolute delight that once again showcases her insightful and humorous perspective on human behavior. Dunham captures the film’s energy perfectly, speaking to viewers in Birdy’s shoes and addressing those who have made it past their state of shattered naivety.
Our appeal: STREAM IT! Catherine named Birdy is a welcome addition to the coming-of-age comedic canon. It’s sweet, sincere, and sizzlingly funny. Whether it’s family or friends, romance or society, Birdy has something to say—and something to teach us.
Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based freelance film journalist. Besides Decider, his work has also appeared on Slashfilm, Slant, Little White Lies and many other media. One day everyone will realize how right they are Spring breakers.