Hulu’s ‘I Am Greta’ is a stirring but familiar portrait of a young activist



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Greta Thunberg has never been one to mince words. She’s never been shy about what she stands for, or what she’ll do to fight for it. She’s stood on the biggest platforms in the world to plead for change, or shame leaders who’ve failed to deliver it. Though she’s sure to have her secrets, like any other human on the planet, she’s rarely seemed anything less than authentic.

Which perhaps is why, for all its intimacy and access, I Am Greta seems to have so little to add to her story. 

That’s not to say it’s bad. Director Nathan Grossman started filming Thunberg in August 2018, when she was just a lone teen holding her Skolstrejk för klimatet sign outside the Swedish parliament, and continued following her through September 2019, when she attended the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York (the site of her instantly iconic “how dare you” speech) and led marches of millions across North America. Grossman’s incredible timing granted him — and now us, by extension — an inside look at her dizzying rise, and though the big events are thrilling, it’s the smallest moments that are the most touching.

There’s value simply in being reminded that there’s a human under all those headlines, especially when said human has an urgent message to spread. 

The documentary finds Thunberg in unguarded moments of pleasure or petulance, excitement or worry. The most compelling material concerns Thunberg with her dad, who travels around the world with her. Svante helps her pick out clothes, makes sure she’s getting enough to eat, acts as a sounding board, and even, as we see in one poignant scene, learns how he might protect her physically should the need arise. The two bicker at times like any parent and teenager would, but his devotion to her is so clear and unwavering that it becomes its own subplot playing out in the background: She’s a girl who’ll do anything to reverse climate change, and he’s the father who’ll do anything for that girl.

The portrait that emerges of Thunberg is a richer and more textured one than we tend to notice when we’re scrolling by her latest speech or interview on social media. Through Grossman’s camera, Thunberg is every bit like the fiery young activist we’ve seen on magazine covers and news packages — but she’s also a teenage girl who was giddy to be invited to the UN, who enjoys playing with her dogs and cooking with her mom, who buries her head in a pillow in frustration when she’s having trouble getting an important speech just right. She opens up about having Asperger’s (“It might be good if everyone had a tiny bit of Asperger’s, at least about the climate,” she muses), about being homesick while on the road, about feeling the burden of responsibility on her slight shoulders.

Hulu's 'I Am Greta' is a stirring but familiar portrait of a young activist

None of it is particularly revelatory, though, and even in these moments there’s a sense that the Thunbergs are holding back a bit. Greta’s mother, Malena, appears so rarely that I assumed at first she wasn’t part of their lives, and it was a surprise to learn later on that Greta also has younger sister we never see. I Am Greta is only sharing what Thunbergs are willing to share, and while their desire for privacy is understandable and even admirable, it also means we’re not really learning much about Thunberg we hadn’t already gotten from dozens of profiles and interviews before this one.

Still, there’s value simply in being reminded that there’s a human under all those breathless headlines, especially when said human has such an urgent message to spread. What begins as the straightforwardly uplifting journey of a courageous young activist changing the world becomes a far more bittersweet one as Thunberg realizes the limits of her powers over the course of the year. 

“It feels like I’m speaking a completely different language,” Thunberg vents to a friend midway through the movie. She’s traveled the world spreading her message, spearheading marches and speaking at fancy conferences and shaking hands with world leaders. And yet, she despairs, so little has changed. So just in case there’s someone who needs to hear this message still, or could a reminder, I Am Greta is here to put it back in front of us again, and ask us to do whatever we can to heed it. 

I Am Greta is now playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. It premieres Nov. 13 on Hulu





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