Lena Dunham’s warm, lively adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 historical novel “Catherine Called Birdy” opens with a needle drop that references another classic teen movie. Misty Miller’s cover of the ’90s Supergrass tune “Alright” plays as a young Lady Catherine (called Birdy) (Bella Ramsey) finds herself in the midst of a mud fight during a raucous cottage raising in her medieval English village.
The song choice (one of a few great ‘90s covers that Miller performs throughout the film) is a high-five to Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film “Clueless,” and it inextricably links the two films together. One is an adaptation of a novel written in the ’90s, set in medieval times, the other is based on a Regency-era Jane Austen novel, set in the ‘90s, but both films are about a virgin who can’t drive. The reference is a lovely way of reminding us, as “Catherine Called Birdy” frequently does, that the issues plaguing girlhood are often the same, no matter the era.
Dunham has called adapting the book a longtime passion project, and the care and love she has for the story and the characters — in both her writing and direction — is palpable. Like “Clueless,” it is a film that feels effortless, energetic and dynamic; it is densely wordy, witty and wise, and it demands to be re-watched as many times as possible.
There is a fluid naturalism and energy to the film that starts at the page, and flows through the movement of the camera and the physicality of the actors. Dunham has nailed the language and tone of this piece. The writing is sharp, clear, with a distinct voice and tone, but it’s never overly explicit; it is modern and relatable, yet utterly medieval. Anachronistic songs might soundtrack these events, but the trials, tribulations and creative curses that Birdy dreams up are all feudal England.
Birdy is navigating that tricky moment when she’s not a girl, not yet a woman. She stuffs her menstrual rags in floors of the outhouse to hide them, because getting her period is a high-stakes affair. It means her father, the fey and funny Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), can marry her off to the highest bidder to save the manor’s finances. Birdy rebels against the wife life in defiance but also in fear. Her mother, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), struggles to produce healthy babies.
“Catherine Called Birdy” is a chronicle of this distinct transitional time, as told by Birdy herself in a journal written for her brother Edward, a monk (Archie Renaux). As suitors come to call, Birdy attempts to thwart the marriage plot as best she can with pranks and capers, relying on her best friends, Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and Aelis (Isis Hainsworth), while feuding with her brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman) and occasionally pining after her hunky Uncle George (Joe Alwyn).
But while the plot grapples with the purpose and function of marriages, the story of “Catherine Called Birdy” is one of a deeply felt familial love and bond, expressed earnestly, and with good humor, by Ramsey, Piper, Chapman, Renaux and especially Scott, who manages to make Rollo endearing in his entreaties to marry off his daughter. The casting is one of the exceptional aspects of this film: Lesley Sharp and Sophie Okonedo deliver delightful performances as two of the mentors who help to shape and guide Birdy outside of her family, while Paul Kaye from “Game of Thrones” makes for a splendidly lascivious antagonist.
“Catherine Called Birdy” is Dunham’s best writing and directing work yet; it’s an easy breezy, emotional good time, and an instant teen classic, just like its predecessor, “Clueless.” With her two excellent 2022 films, including “Sharp Stick,” it’s clear that, even in a post-“Girls” world, Dunham will never be done inspecting the inner lives of girls, in all their playful, pragmatic and poignant complexities.