Nathan Grossman dutifully peels back the rhetoric of Greta Thunberg’s crusade against climate change to show a young girl driven to do the right thing.
In a month drenched in election news and high-level anxiety over the prospect of a second Trump term (even, it seems, even after President-elect Joe Biden won in a decisive victory), it’s easy to forget that there are even larger issues facing us in the world. The biggest among them, of course, is manmade climate change, an existential threat to the species that activists like 15-year-old Greta Thunberg have been sounding the alarm bells over. She made headlines in the last couple of years for her weekly “school strike for the climate,” where she skipped school in order to raise awareness of the looming climate crisis. In I Am Greta, those efforts, and her growing notoriety as the cultural face of youth activism towards climate change, are given intriguing focus.
While issue docs are a dime a dozen, Nathan Grossman‘s profile elides many of those concerns by dint of the very figure he’s highlighting. Thunberg is an endearing, if often elusive, figure — she’s passionate and sweet in one moment, withdrawn and overwhelmed the next. Some of this can be attributed to her self-professed Asperger’s diagnosis, which often makes it difficult for her to carry on casual conversations or pick up on social cues. (Ed. Note: While the DSM now folds Asperger’s and several other similar atypical neurological diagnoses into Autism Spectrum Disorder, we’ve chosen to keep the reference to Asperger’s in deference to how Thunberg describes herself.)
But Thunberg thinks her Asperger’s is the very thing that gives her the focus to do what she does: “Sometimes I feel that it might be good if everyone had a tiny bit of Asperger’s,” she says in the doc’s final minutes. Certainly, at the very least, her sense of focus on one of mankind’s greatest challenges in the 21st century is worthy of applause.
It’s not all publicity trips and impassioned speeches, though — Grossman establishes the mighty forces Thunberg must rally against, from intransigent government bureaucracies to a media apparatus of old, white men who decry her as a mentally-ill, emotionally unstable teenager controlled by her parents. Grossman relegates these moments largely to brief news montages, and scenes where Greta herself chuckles while obsessively reading comments from her detractors.
On the one hand, it feels counterproductive; on the other, the only thing you can do is laugh in the face of such outright hatred. It’s a deeply humanizing moment, one perfect for a documentary focused on the inner life of a young girl most of us have only seen through viral social media videos.
Through that hostility, there are thankfully moments of warmth, especially with Greta and her parents (the same ones people think are manipulating her to be a cute mouthpiece for climate alarmists). There’s no evidence of that here; in fact, mother Malena Ernman and father Svante Thunberg are endlessly supportive of her, Grossman capturing beautiful, intimate moments of Svante checking in on her when she’s overwhelmed, or she and Malena bonding over a botched cake they’re baking.
Her story — and the documentary telling it — is a tale of perseverance, one that proves as inspiring as she is.
Still, while I Am Greta is deeply focused on showing us the girl behind the movement, the movement itself awaits. It’s here that the doc gets a bit repetitive, admittedly, particularly as we end up merely seeing a lot of her most famous moments (her big speech at the UN Climate Summit, her highly-publicized voyage across the Atlantic in a boat) from different angles. It’s heartening to see her land in different cities with supporters cheering for her and wanting to take selfies, but it’s easy to see how it all overwhelms her.
Even within these repetitions, however, Grossman succeeds in keeping her the center, smartly cutting to moments like her taking the translation headphones off at the Climate Summit when one politician begins predictably bloviating about how hard it is to take immediate action on climate change. Composers Rebekka Karijord and Jon Ekstrand layer that indefatigable determination with steady, arpeggio-laden cellos and layered voices, emphasizing Greta’s drive and the urgency of her mission.
Greta Thunberg is probably one of the most underestimated women in the world, and despite the righteousness of her mission, there’s a lot in I Am Greta that will infuriate you. There are the adults who sneer at her, passersby who think she should just go back to school, world leaders who opt to do nothing rather than listen to the voice of the generation that will inherit the climate problems they cause.
But even then, her story — and the documentary telling it — is a tale of perseverance, one that proves as inspiring as she is. She may tirelessly work to limit her carbon footprint (from her boat trips to meticulous grocery planning with her parents over which foods are most ethical to eat), but she leaves a path too big and important to ignore.
I Am Greta premieres on Hulu November 13th.