After years as one of the most polarizing figures in entertainment, Lena Dunham is finally taking the win.
Her fourth feature film, the Medieval-set teen comedy “Catherine Called Birdy,” has enjoyed nearly universal praise from critics (not traditionally her biggest fans; the film is currently sitting pretty at 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, above even her highly regarded “Tiny Furniture”). She puts all doubts to bed with her latest, an adaptation of Karen Cushman’s YA novel, one of Dunham’s favorite childhood reads that was originally published in 1994.
Filtered through Dunham’s undeniable comedic voice, Cushman’s novel becomes a cheeky romp through a charmingly anachronistic Medieval Britain. With “Game of Thrones” breakout Bella Ramsey as the charismatic lead and Andrew Scott (AKA Hot Priest) as her wry foil of a father, “Catherine Called Birdy” is an unmitigated delight. And that’s exactly how Dunham feels about the warm responses her film is receiving.
“I can’t believe I’m saying something was an unmitigated joy, but it really was,” Dunham told IndieWire of the film’s reception at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere last week. “People were incredibly kind. I was sitting next to my husband during the screening and I kept saying, ‘Are people laughing?’ And he was like, ‘Yes, they’re around us laughing.’ But I was dissociated, because it’s been such a long journey to get there with the movie.”
Almost ten years, to be exact. Thats’ when Dunham first optioned the rights to her favorite childhood novel. The idea came to her during the wild success of her breakout HBO series “Girls,” when she was first asked if there was a piece of existing IP she’d like to adapt.
“It was a time when teen heroines were almost expected to have magical powers or wield a sword. It was either ‘Hunger Games’ or ‘Twilight,'” said Dunham. “That’s what they thought teenagers wanted. And this heroine doesn’t have any magical powers. She’s not having a sexy romance with an outsider. It’s not like an adult fantasy of what it is to be a teenager. It’s just what it is to be a teenager.”
Though the stakes for Birdy are higher than for today’s youth, Dunham’s script shrewdly turns the indignities of adolescence (namely, periods) into the tragedy that it can sometimes feel like. When her father decides to marry her off for the biggest dowry he can fetch, she hatches a plan to scare off all eligible suitors. Relying on elaborate disguises, erratic behavior, and even pyrotechnics, Birdy asserts her autonomy with joyful aplomb. As comfortable mud wrestling as she is swooning over her young uncle (Joe Alwyn), Ramsey is a refreshing bundle of energy; as playful and precocious as the young heroine should be.
“I looked at her face and it was really that feeling of love at first sight like, ‘Oh, there they are. There is the face I have been searching for.’ And it was almost like the fact that her audition was amazing was secondary because I felt such power, presence, and clarity coming from her gaze,” said Dunham of the casting process. “I just knew it had to be her. And then she read a scene. It’s always an amazing feeling when an actor elevates your writing, makes your writing better, makes you surprised by what you hear in it.”
No stranger to the stresses of the limelight, especially for young women, Dunham naturally feels protective of her young star. She is heartened to see that #MeToo and Time’s Up do seem to have had a noticeable impact. If not directly on the world at large, then on what young people will and won’t tolerate.
“I realized really quickly how wise she is and how able to advocate for herself she is and how much that inspires me and, in turn, makes me also want to advocate for her. … If someone asks her an even remotely silly question in a group interview, I’m body blocking like nobody’s business,” she said. “I’m also so excited to see someone so young understand so much about what they want out of this business and what they won’t accept out of this business. It shows me that all of the things that have happened over the last five years have made a difference to young women’s and young people’s sense of themselves and their own power.”
Some of that change is also a rebuke of the way media treated Dunham when she was the new hot thing just ten years ago. Hopefully, Dunham is the last successful woman filmmaker to have to run the gauntlet of media criticism like she did. For now, it makes her current moment in the sun all the more sweet.
“I got ready to be in that defensive crouch,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing to have come to a place where I no longer was dependent on other people’s opinions. [That] allows you to then enjoy people understanding and caring about the thing that you’ve made even more, I think, because you recognize, ‘I would’ve been OK without this.’ But it feels really nice because it feels, at its best, praise means you’re connecting with people. And who doesn’t need connection right now?”
“Catherine Called Birdy” opens in theaters on Friday, September 23, and starts streaming on Prime Video on Friday, October 7.