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film review

Bella Ramsey stars in Lena Dunham's Catherine Called Birdy.Alex Bailey/Amazon Studios

  • Catherine Called Birdy
  • Directed by Lena Dunham
  • Written by Lena Dunham and Karen Cushman
  • Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott and Billie Piper
  • Classification N/A; 108 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Sept. 23; streaming on Prime Video starting Oct. 7

Critic’s Pick

Lena Dunham’s Catherine Called Birdy is a delightful and rambunctious exploration of girlhood, and, thankfully, a sharper look at questions of burgeoning sexuality than we saw in her earlier 2022 film, Sharp Stick.

Adapted by Dunham from author Karen Cushman’s YA millennial favourite of the same name, the film follows its titular Birdy (Bella Ramsey), a precocious and sharp-tongued 14-year-old girl living in the 13th-century English shire of Lincoln.

As the only daughter of Lord Rollo (played here wonderfully by Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), Birdy is set to marry a suitor of her parents’ arranging, if only so that her dowry may offset the exorbitant expenditures of her flighty father. Along with this life-changing decision comes the arrival of Birdy’s period, which she attempts to hide from her family in a series of amusing and ridiculous ways. It is a coming-of-age rite that is unwelcome and relatable in the ways it alienates Birdy from the relative freedoms of her childhood.

Dunham doesn’t shy away from imbuing her film, despite its medieval setting, with a winking, anachronistic sense of humour. While certainly of a time and place, Catherine Called Birdy is a timeless story of defiant girlhood (author Judy Blume comes to mind, as do the ‘90s film adaptations of Harriet the Spy and Matilda). The film’s soundtrack – with lo-fi pop covers of beloved songs such as Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You – likewise adds to the nostalgic tone established by Dunham.

Ramsey, right, has an invigorating onscreen presence, tossing out barbed one-liners as often as she does insightful critiques.Alex Bailey/Amazon Studios

Ramsey (best-known for Game of Thrones) is an invigorating onscreen presence, tossing out barbed one-liners as often as she does insightful critiques (“Men are horribly duplicitous creatures!” and, “If I cannot be a hero, I will love a hero instead”). Birdy’s mischievous attempts to thwart her potential suitors (from employing foraged “salves” of feces to full-on arson) are buoyed by her continued understanding of her place in the world.

Birdy is perpetually reprimanded for not being cleaner, gentler or softer, but she remains determined not to be reduced to only what is expected of her (“Clean for my suitors, but full of dirty rage!”). She is quick to point out the many absurdities of the whole gendered charade, while also willfully navigating how her life has been, and will continue to be, constrained by her very own nature.

While Catherine Called Birdy is a fun period romp (no pun intended) rife with amusing antics, it is also an earnest look at the necessity of carving out spaces of play and pleasure in a world that demands an inherent dispossession of one’s self. What it does best is show, with kindness and glee, the urgencies of a childhood wherein everything is a succession of firsts – from periods to crushes.

Whether it’s the film’s running bit regarding what exactly a virgin may or not be (Birdy has many guesses, all of them endearingly naïve) or the realization that she can’t marry her beloved uncle George (a survivor of the Crusades who, notably to the young girl, is blessed to be in possession of most of his teeth), Dunham guides us through Birdy’s contemplations with an embracing sense of deference.

Notably, this is director Dunham’s first departure from stories of the contemporary, twenty-to-thirty-something set. A figure as polarizing as she is lauded, Dunham uses Catherine Called Birdy to finally hang up her hang-ups; here, cringe is par for the course in the shaping of lighthearted adolescence rather than an exercise of emotional endurance. While the film is perhaps the least challenging or prickly of Dunham’s work so far, it is also the most certain and well-developed, with a smart and plucky script that seems more than happy to meet the fantastic potential of its cast.

Dunham has shaped a story world that is charming and whimsical, without reducing it to twee, while also keeping a full-hearted regard for its characters. There is a sincerity here that is unafraid of itself and – in what is most certainly a love letter to the beguiling and tumultuous affair that is girlhood – Catherine Called Birdy feels unique and special in a way that speaks directly to Birdy and other uncontainable girls like her.