Documentary Review: A teen, and already one “tough broad” — “I Am Greta”

There’s a moment, after we’ve seen an hour of the stoic Swedish teen Greta Thunberg start a global climate movement, meet with world leaders and agree to every “selfie” asked of her by fans along the way, when we get a taste of just what this activism has cost her.

It’s not in the scary “security” briefing and first aid refresher course her dad, Svante, gets after the death threats start. And it doesn’t come the first time she expresses dismay and even outrage at the “fake” political leaders and all the lip service paid her cause when the cameras are rolling and Celebrity Greta is present.

She’s on board the racing sloop “Malizia II,” bombing across the Atlantic on a carbon-fibre/carbon-neutral sailboat trip to New York. The seas are heaving, but she’s as poker-faced as a Vegas high roller. It’s the tearful aftermath of a call home that reminds us that she’s just 16 when this footage was shot. She’s a teenager with Asperger’s forced to cope with being mobbed, meeting tens of thousands of strangers when what she craves are solitude, “routine,” and the family and the animals she always found easier to relate to.

“I Am Greta” isn’t just about a global phenomenon that’s grown out of one child’s protest. It’s about what a little girl, derided by climate change deniers and right wing pundits as “mentally ill” and “depressed” and “attention-starved,” having the do a staggering laundry list of things she fears the most in life because of one thing she fears worse than any other — mass extinction and an unending climate crisis that leads to it.

Nathan Grossman’s marvelous “fly on the wall” documentary follows Thunberg from that first day, as she took her hand-drawn placard and sat down in front of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm.

“SKOLSTREJK for KLIMATET,” it read. “School Strike for Climate.”

Adults shake their heads as they pass. One older woman stops to gently lecture her that yes, there’s a crisis, but you’d get more accomplished staying in school.

“No one gives a damn,” Greta mutters, in Swedish, with English subtitles.

And then other kids join her. A tiny bit of online video attention follows, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, with millions of followers on Twitter, endorses her protest. Just like that, a Swedish protest becomes a European, and then global phenomenon and movement.

What humanizes her is how she soldiers through all this activity that she has an aversion to, accompanied by her skeptical father, polishing her message and sharpening her criticism, which she gets the chance to deliver in the world’s most public places — at conferences, in British parliament (“Is my microphone on?” she wants to know, in English. “Because you don’t seem to be hearing me.”) and at the U.N.

“I want you to panic. I want you to act like the house is on fire.”

Because, frankly, it is.

Grossman’s film makes us appreciate what a smart kid she is and how she somehow shrugs off her symptoms and the way she triggers the climate-denial right. Her Dad should have bought a plane ticket to Australia and punched the wingnut who called his daughter “a virtue signaling little turd” on Murdoch-friendly TV. But you know, flying is off limits in this family. That’s why she traveled to the UN via sailboat, after all.

Being on the autism spectrum may explain her laser-intense focus on this issue, on “drowning polar bears, deforestation and ocean acidification.” She freely admits it lets her “see through the static.”

Her Dad may be proud of her ability to turn herself into an expert on this subject and a global icon through her “almost photographic memory” (a politician fervently shoves a big climate report into her hands as she’s heading into one speech) and well-intentioned obsession. What moves her mother Elena to tears is just the knowledge that Greta is now able to “eat in front of other people,” another phobia related to her condition that she won’t let stop her.

Who knows if she’ll remain this focused on this issue forever? And will she remain an icon when she’s no longer a pony-tailed teen?

But when she promises “We will be a pain in the ass” of officialdom, and “We will not stop,” I wouldn’t bet against her. She’s already one tough, laser-focused broad.

MPA Rating: unrated, a little profanity

Cast: Greta Thunberg, Svante Thunberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emanuel Macron, Pope Francis

Credits: Directed by Nathan Grossman. A Hulu release.

Running time: 1:37

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