In 2018, a quiet 15 year-old girl from Sweden began protesting the climate crisis by striking from school. Amidst global disquiet and political inertia, Greta Thunberg rapidly became the face of contemporary climate activism. In his directorial debut, Nathan Grossman charts her rise in this perfectly enjoyable but ultimately unpersuasive and shallow documentary.
I Am Greta works as a well-structured, fly-on-the-wall study of a likeable and important figure in the public eye, but it is unpersuasive in its assumption that its audience are all singing from the same hymn sheet regarding both the climate crisis and Thunberg, and shallow in its unfocussed interest.
It certainly isn’t particularly interested in the science behind the fact that we are in serious existential trouble: I Am Greta is no Inconvenient Truth or Before the Flood. That’s fine of course – the evidence that climate change is real is overwhelming to anyone with the slightest iota of sense while the minority of diehard deniers are unlikely to be persuaded at this stage by further appeals to their diminished sense of reason.
That leaves Greta herself. Much is made of her Asperger’s syndrome and many of I Am Greta’s most heart-wrenching moments come when the pressure to socialise with strangers or the breaking of the routines on which she depends for stability become too much for her. We’re reminded that behind all the powerful speeches at the UN, the fearless attacks on rudderless world leaders, and the cowardly bullying from professional ghouls like Piers Morgan there is a normal schoolgirl under immense pressure in her present and terrified for her future.
The film’s most promising sequence is in her journey to New York by sea. This perilous, unbelievably lengthy voyage across the Atlantic Ocean is testament to her passion but even this is not given the space to properly reveal much of anything about Thunberg or the tribulations she faces. Instead of focusing on a single moment like this, I Am Greta tries to reach every aspect of her life and ends up grasping little of it.
Perhaps the film’s most frustrating quality, however, is its insistence on centring Thunberg as the singular hero of climate activism, marginalising the contributions of the hundreds and thousands of groups and groups (not to mention those that aren’t white Europeans) to the cause. Greta Thunberg’s achievements are astonishing and she has done more for the climate than the vast, vast majority of us, of that there is no question.
But Thunberg would baulk – indeed in the film itself she does baulk – at the suggestion that she is the only figure here that matters, a celebrity activist with all eyes on her. Yet this is exactly what the film does, falling into the very trap that Thunberg herself warns against, and in so doing falls short of doing its subject justice.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm