‘I Am Greta’ Is Direct Cinema Done Right

by Jonah Desneux on October 23, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

In select theaters October 23. Premiering on Hulu November 13.

I am normally not a fan of direct cinema. Fly on the wall documentaries that attempt to capture life at its most “authentic” usually have subjects putting on performances grander than Amy Adams going hard for the Oscar. I Am Greta turns this critical flaw on its head, by focusing on someone who genuinely doesn’t want to put on a show. With Greta Thunberg, there is no playing to the camera or acting a certain way around different people. While filming, Thunberg thoroughly remains herself, with her gigantic goal of saving the planet held high above the fame she has gained in the process. Director Nathan Grossman brilliantly captures Thunberg’s pride and pains while documenting the start of her activist journey, as well as challenging a traditional direct cinema model with how its subject is framed. The results range from the inspiration you expect, the heartbreak you loathe, and a genuine inside look in one of the world’s most impassioned minds.

I Am Greta follows Thunberg’s rise on the global stage from her lone protests in the streets in her famous “School Strike” for climate action, to her expedition to America to address and criticize many of the world’s leaders at the 2019 United Nations Summit for climate change. It is immensely impressive that Grossman was able to film so close to the start and intimately follow all that went on behind the scenes as Thunberg grew in success.

Thunberg is documented at her best and her most raw. Told chronologically, the film weaves through Thunberg’s rise to global attention showcasing scenes of grand magnitude like Greta speaking to crowds of thousands of determined protestors, along with intimate moments of mental and physical deterioration as Greta is burdened with the weight of the world on her shoulders. 

Before touching on how the film frames Thunberg, it is important to note how the film comments on Asperger syndrome and how Greta sees herself as someone who has it. Without much diving into the science of Asperger’s and Autism, the film touches on an individual with Asperger’s’ tendency to focus on one specific thing. Grossman subtly paints the narrative that climate change is what has stuck with Thunberg and has become the driving force for all that she does. Like a switch that won’t turn off, Greta is continuously shown burdened with the mental anguish of never being able to remove her feeling of fear and frustration, only finding small escapes through moments with her family, animals, and random bits of dancing. 

Asperger’s is more complicated than the film treats it but Grossman is saved from a lack of information, by pairing the focus with how Thunberg herself sees her diagnosis. Horrendously weaponized by her enemies, Asperger’s is seen as a strength to Thunberg in her daily life and her climate-action goals. After watching a documentary on climate change in school, Thunberg became depressed and was non-vocal with anyone other than family for three years. This changes once Thunberg decides to take action for herself and use her voice and photographic memory to become a true expert on the subject. Asperger’s is thus shown in a positive light and while it may be too cookie-cutter for the film to insist on the direct correlation, the treatment is effective in showing Thunberg’s strengths. 

Great documentaries that seek to inform and inspire change are at their best when you are flooded with a copious amount of hope while also feeling the sting of guilt for not doing more. Greta lives by example, never compromising her morals for an easy solution to show that individual change is possible. Refusing to take a plane due to the pollution produced, Thunberg and her father take trains all around Europe for the different conferences and summits she speaks at. The film’s climax even comes from this as the pair take an experimental sailboat across the Atlantic to get to New York City. This simple act of cutting a nonessential environmental hazard out of her life accomplishes her goal of showing that personal change is possible.

As motivating as the scenes of Greta delivering dramatic speeches are, the film’s strongest moments come from these personal glimpses of Thunberg pushing herself when there’s seemingly nothing left to give to create a better world. Seeing the legitimate tears that come from Greta’s eyes in these moments of weakness allows for audience reflection for not doing more to have a 15-year-old Swedish girl make up for it. Grossman does an excellent job giving insight on the pressure that Thunberg faces and the call to action to help take some off her shoulders.

Though the subjects of the film plead that climate change is too important to be a political stance, it has, unfortunately, become that too many and it is, therefore, the film’s responsibility to provide arguments to all sides. The film does this very well, in its realistic depiction of Greta and what she aims to achieve while allowing everyone who opposes her to bury themselves in their cruelty. Thunberg is critical but only speaks with passion to take action to save the planet. There are no other political motives hidden in her agenda and Thunberg herself is critical of those who attempt to use her as a prop without listening to what she’s saying. Though her only goal is to make sure the world doesn’t die, Thunberg receives her fair share of critics who are vocal about their disdain and even disgust with Greta. In showing both sides of the coin, Grossman lets these critics highlight their selfish absurdity in their public insults not knowing that referring to Aspergers as a “mental illness” will only evoke more support for Thunberg and her cause. 

I Am Greta is a wonderful film about an even more wonderful person. Drawing its greatest strengths from moments that take place away from the national spotlight, the film succeeds in the depiction of Greta and providing another platform for the young activist to get her message across. The film is an emotional rollercoaster in these scenes, as your heart melts as distant shots capture Greta simply dancing by herself like fifteen-year-olds do, to immediately crushing your spirit as her father is shown taking a class on how to protect his daughter in case someone tries to kill her. This scene is impactfully following the clip of President Trump infamously mocking Thunberg. Whatever emotions one is filled with while watching, there is no denying that I Am Greta is one of the most important of films of the year.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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