None of this is easy for Greta Thunberg. If that’s the only thing audiences take away from Nathan Grossman’s intimate documentary “I Am Greta,” it would be enough, but the first-time filmmaker has plenty more to offer viewers eager to learn about the climate-change activist. Still, it’s those who might not want to see the teenage iconoclast in her full humanity that are most likely to walk away changed by what Grossman and his unlikely star bring to the table.
It starts on roiling seas, as the Swedish teenager makes her way across the Atlantic Ocean to attend and speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City in September of last year. For some, that act — spending over two weeks on a racing yacht to cross an ocean, rather than simply take a flight there — was a put-on by Thunberg, some sort of show, but “I Am Greta” makes it clear that it was truly an extension of her beliefs. Set on reducing her impact on the climate, Thunberg has eschewed plane travel for years. From the looks of the film’s opening, and everything else was learn after, that was never an easy choice, certainly not a comfortable one.
Not that comfort isn’t important to Thunberg, and as “I Am Greta” zips back to chronicle her journey from its earliest roots (most notably the solitary “school strike” she started in 2018), Thunberg’s ability to push through the most awkward situations in service to her cause is remarkable. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, OCD, and selective mutism, Thunberg doesn’t use her diagnoses as an excuse, but more as a reason why she is the way she is. And for many, that’s — to put it in the harsh, disgusting language some of her critics have used — enough to make her “mentally ill,” “brainwashed,” and someone with “anger management” problems.
For Thunberg, it just means she’s able to cut through the “static” and see certain things, like the science behind climate change, in very clear terms. She’s also pretty good at seeing through the bullshit her work has inspired, even from apparent allies who are happy to talk a big game and not do anything about it. Thunberg’s very existence has been politicized by both friend and foe, but “I Am Greta” is intent on reminding people that she’s really just a kid who has a big dream. The key, of course, is that Thunberg’s dream, by its very nature, has no time to waste.
Grossman’s film, an intimate outing that spends significant time alongside both Greta and her family over the course of 2018 and 2019, follows Thunberg throughout a time of great personal upheaval as she embarks on a rocky road to becoming a public icon. In its quietest moments, it finds the very real person underneath the public activist, an inside look that shows how dedicated Thunberg is to her ideals. She wants a better world for everyone, and as she begins to understand the cost of saying such an idea out loud, the film grows both more unnerving and rich.
While Thunberg seems believably stunned by her own notoriety — after delivering her instantly iconic speech at the plenary session of the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, she tells her father how much she’s looking forward to the coming days when no one is thinking about her anymore — clearly some people in her life saw the potential for fame, including the dedicated documentarian who follows her around. Yet Thunberg, unable to be less than always authentic, retains her wide-eyed wonder, from attempting to find her way through staged meetings with world leaders to giddily laughing about how “weird” she looks in a picture with the pope.
“I Am Greta” is not always as disarmingly open as its star, however, and keeping its focus so narrowly on the past two years robs it of some nuance. Grossman scrimps on some details that have value, especially the ones that might add more thorny context. For example, while an early section details how Thunberg’s passion eventually led to her family making massive changes to their everyday lives, it doesn’t add that the Thunbergs’ choice to reduce their carbon footprint led to the end of her mother’s career as an internationally traveling opera singer. Thunberg, however, always seems open to the tough stuff, no matter the cost.
“I Am Greta” premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It will start streaming on Hulu on November 13.