Catherine Called Birdy Review: Lena Dunham's Medieval Coming-Of-Age Comedy Is A Low-Key Charmer

Nowadays, medieval reimaginings about a spunky modern girl ahead of her time are a dime a dozen. Call it the "Arya" effect, but as long as YA has existed (maybe even longer), so has the headstrong female character who bucks gender norms and only wants to play in the mud or with swords. And Birdy, the title character of the charming but slight "Catherine Called Birdy," appears to fall too easily into this category. But writer-director Lena Dunham, dipping her toes into family comedy territory for the first time, imbues "Catherine Called Birdy" with enough irreverence and absurdity to give star Bella Ramsey the chance to soar beyond her fellow "strong female characters" — even if the movie is not quite as dazzling as she is.

Based on the beloved 1994 children's novel of the same name by Karen Cushman, "Catherine Called Birdy" follows the struggles of the rabble-rousing Lady Catherine or, as everyone calls her, Birdy. She, and everyone else including her parents, often forget that she is in fact a lady, what with Birdy spending her days throwing mud pies at her goat shepherd friend Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and acting nearly wild.

"My truest passions are avoiding my chores. Critiquing my father's horrible swordplay. Disrupting cottage raisings. Causing mischief in the village. And listening through doors I should not listen through," Birdy declares in one of the film's many cheeky voiceovers — Birdy's glib comments and snarky remarks act as the driving force behind the film's irreverent tone. Dunham, for all the controversy surrounding her nepo-baby status and irritating personality, is a spirited director — like Birdy, bucking conventional form to make a medieval comedy that is as fun and whimsical as "Love & Friendship" or "The Personal History of David Copperfield" — though the writing is not quite sophisticated as her best works. But that's perfectly all right, because "Catherine Called Birdy" knows precisely who it's for: young girls not much older than Birdy herself.

Anachronisms are welcome here

Birdy's blissfully chaotic life changes when her father's (Andrew Scott, foppish to an almost cartoonish degree) estate falls into debt, giving him no choice but to marry off his only daughter in attempt to save their family from ruin. Worse yet, Birdy has just gotten her period. Even worse yet, Birdy's devastatingly handsome uncle (Joe Alwyn), for whom she's always nursed a crush, has fallen for her best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth). And even worse yet, it turns out all monks are hot. Will life's struggles never cease?!

The stakes are low in the relatively plotless "Catherine Called Birdy" — which is structured more like a series of vignettes in Birdy's life — sometimes to the degree that you wonder whether there is an end goal in sight. But it's nice to just live with Birdy and all her escapades as she dodges her many suitors with increasing creativity — convincing one that she has a third ear, dressing up as a homeless wanderer for another, insisting on wearing strange hats in front of yet another. It's silly and amusing, though the cutesy tone of the film does start to verge into twee at several points.

From the poppy needle drops of "Honey to the Bee" (a funny nod to costar Billie Piper) when Birdy drools over the hot monks, to the freeze frames and quippy onscreen text, to Andrew Scott's distractingly modern haircut, "Catherine Called Birdy" wears its anachronisms on its long, muddy sleeves — though for the most part, it feels of the world. That's because "Catherine Called Birdy" is a film told strictly through Birdy's eyes: small, self-involved, and a little pop-punk. Don't look for historical accuracy or solemnity here, because Birdy doesn't possess a single lick of it. But for all the charm that "Catherine Called Birdy" has, its wry tone and quirky flairs do start to make you yearn for a bit of depth beneath the surface.

A voice of a generation

Thank goodness, then, for Bella Ramsay. It's hard to portray "spunky girl" without coming off as a little too try-hard, but for Ramsay, it's as natural as breathing. Ramsay is funny, she's filthy, she's slightly feral, and she puts on a charming lisp that hammers in just how uncouth Birdy is — and proud of it. She's an absolute star, and the reason that "Catherine Called Birdy" is so watchable even when its quirks start to wear thin.

The interesting thing about "Catherine Called Birdy" is that it's a coming-of-age story without much use for the coming-of-age part. Birdy might be a "woman now" as her parents declare her once they discover she's had her period, but Birdy stubbornly refuses to acquiesce to any of the expectations of growing up. She has her first kiss with a traveling salesman out of curiosity, and brushes it off as not worth all the hype. She has her first heartbreak when she sees her uncle George and Aelis together, but shows no sympathy for her best friend's own heartbreak when George gets married off to a rich widow. Birdy is stubborn to the point of being self-destructive and unlikable, at the cost of her family's own welfare and reputation. And in the end, Birdy doesn't much change, either in her perspective of the world or how she conducts herself in the world, but, "Catherine Called Birdy" argues, maybe she doesn't need to.

"I cheer for you Birdy, but I fear for you," her mother Lady Aislinn (Piper, injecting empathy and warmth into too small a role) says, gently comforting her distressed daughter. It's sometimes difficult to cheer for Birdy, who works herself into histrionics over the smallest slights, claiming that no one should suffer as much as she does.

But in Birdy's unlikability, in her selfishness, and in the film's insistence that she doesn't need to change herself to better fit the world, you can see why "Catherine Called Birdy" was a passion project for Dunham. It fits her "well-behaved girls rarely make history" mantra that she's held since "Girls," albeit in a family-friendly package. And while it's not a roaring success, there's no denying the charms and misbehaving magic of "Catherine Called Birdy."

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10