Catherine Called Birdy was originally a book written by Karen Cushman, which has now been adapted into a film, written and directed by Lena Dunham. Coming off of the Fantasia Film Festival film Sharp Stick by Dunham, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It seems Lena Dunham is a woman of many colours, and thankfully at TIFF 2022, Catherine Called Birdy was a very bright light in a sea of dark and depressing films.
Catherine Called Birdy is a coming-of-age movie about Birdy (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old, daughter to Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). Birdy is of age in this time period, and her father looks to marry her off. Her actual name is Catherine, and she is playful, a practical joker, childish and absolutely does not want to be wed. Her family has come on hard times, and Catherine is their only way to get out of the debt they are in.
Catherine Called Birdy is clearly good for a laugh. Bella Ramsey just came off of a massively popular role as Lyanna Mormont of Game of Thrones, and soon to be Ellie in The Last of Us, seeing her in a comedic role was unexpected. I’m happy to say that she was the highlight of the film, filled with innocence and mischief. More importantly, her comedic timing was flawless, and she delivered a stellar performance that many well-seasoned actors would struggle with.
Andrew Scott as Lord Rollo managed to bring many versions of the character to the screen. What we start with is a selfish, immature and irresponsible head of the household, and throughout the film he transitions to a tyrant, a lover, and a damn good father. Billie Piper encapsulates a truly loving mother, and the connection she has with Birdy feels so real.
Some of my favourite moments in Catherine Called Birdy are between Rollo and Aislinn; they bring a tenderness to the film that had me shedding tears during their childbirth scene. The power Piper brings to her motherly role, and the quick switch to protector and lover for Scott was moving to say the least.
The same can be said for the supporting actors as well. Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) and Ethelfritha (Sophie Okonedo) had some truly tender moments outside the silliness of the film. Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman), Lady Berenice Sidebottom (Mimi Ndiweni), Lord Gideon Sidebottom (David Bradley), Shaggy Beard (Paul Kaye), and Meg (Rita Bernard-Shaw) handled a lot of the comedic relief outside our main characters, and stole scenes with quick one-liners or outrageous behaviour more than once. Very few people in the film went unnoticed, and that says a lot about the writing, direction and cast.
“That is part of what I loved about Catherine Called Birdy, the fact that an ultimately playful and silly film had really powerful moments…”
That is part of what I loved about Catherine Called Birdy, the fact that an ultimately playful and silly film had really powerful moments surrounding childbirth and loss, love, and parenting. Lena Dunham brought a realness to these characters, and I think the casting had a lot to do with that. The chemistry on screen was always there, no matter which characters were involved.
Add to that a story that fits right into the “girls rule” and “take up space” theme of this year’s TIFF, and Catherine Called Birdy is right at home. A young woman determined to be no one but herself is often silenced, and though people try, Birdy is unapologetically herself. Though Dunham traded her usual rated R voice, the message is still loud and clear here, and now more accessible to young women as well. This is a film you can watch with your family, and one that everyone can enjoy, proving it doesn’t have to be vulgar or violent to make a point.
Catherine Called Birdy was a fun, sweet, and sometimes moving coming-of-age film at TIFF 2022. Lena Dunham proved to be a great leader in both writing and direction, with a cast that rose to the occasion to create something not only hilarious, but truly special—so much so that it made my best of TIFF 2022 list!