Lena Dunham’s previous film, Sharp Stick, seems to be her most critically divisive movie to date, but I personally adored the quirky charms and off-kilter humor. Now, Dunham’s second directorial effort of 2022 has arrived in the form of light coming-of-age dramedy, Catherine Called Birdy, an adaptation of the novel by Karen Cushman. The PG-13 outing is tonally a far cry from the majority of Dunham’s other works. It definitely has its fair share of cutesy charms, but an uneven focus and a reliance on the film’s narration to do all the heavy lifting result in Catherine Called Birdy being something of a mixed bag.
It is the year 1290 in the quaint village of Stonebridge in England, and Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey, Game of Thrones, The Last of Us)—aka Birdy—has begun crafting a sort of diary book of her life to forgo her dreaded spinning lessons. With a passion for “avoiding chores” and “causing mischief,” Birdy isn’t exactly the ideal young Lady. Her family on the precipice of certain bankruptcy, Birdy’s cold father, Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott, 1917, Spectre), realizes in horror that he must find Birdy a proper suitor with deep pockets to rid the family of their mountainous debt. Of course, marrying Birdy off will prove to be anything but easy…
Birdy herself is extremely resistant to marriage. Her best friend and local goat boy, Perkin (Michael Woolfitt), is the closest thing Birdy has to a proper male companion. As more and more suitors flock to Stonebridge for Birdy’s hand, the drunken hijinks, silly pranks, and fart jokes arrive in all their glory. Birdy’s ever-present narration began to bother me at a certain point, mainly because it allows for a form of laziness by telling yet not showing. Some of what Birdy says is insightful certainly, and it always keeps us in her headspace. Nevertheless, it becomes tiresome as Catherine Called Birdy progresses deeper into the film.
A humming-style score that recalls Glee music often bolsters up the mood, despite what is happening onscreen not always fully matching up with it. More effective are makeshift “info cards” on each character we see, popping up on screen at their introductions and allowing a window into Birdy’s views on each person. Some of them move by too quickly to the point that I had to pause or go back to them, but seeing them recur was delightful. A few of the side characters, like Birdy’s “so handsome” Uncle George (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased, The Favourite) or the “abominable” young Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones, 1917), I wish we had seen more from. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper, Doctor Who, Penny Dreadful), is also barely utilized.
Eventually, Catherine Called Birdy comes to a properly predictable and modern-style close, urging viewers to continue fighting “no matter who may come on horseback.” While I appreciated the message, even the conclusion felt half-baked and underwhelming to me. While there is plenty here to delight and captivate younger viewers, I didn’t walk away from the film having any major takeaways or memorable moments. In the end, Catherine Called Birdy is cute enough, and I would love to see more from Lena Dunham regardless.
Catherine Called Birdy laments living in a man’s world when it heads to select theaters on Friday, September 23rd, before it debuts to Prime Video subscribers on Friday, October 7th.