Catherine, Called Birdy review: Lena Dunham goes medieval in teen comedy

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Comparing anyone or anything to Woody Allen is heavily frowned upon these days. But Lena Dunham’s third film — once described by the two directors’ local paper, The New York Times, as the Allen of millennials — is the kind of gleefully comic experiment that marked Allen’s early career: a movie that lights up your humor receptors like light bulbs on a switchboard.

Catherine, Called Birdy is a fascinating account of the ups and downs of teenage girlhood in medieval England. The year is 1290, in the village of Stonebridge near Lincoln, where Catherine (Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey, oozing wit) spends her days harassing her family, horrifying her teachers, and rolling around in the fields with her friends.

Her nickname comes from the caged birds she keeps in her bedroom, but it also fits well with her summer nature. Being 14 years old and female, she’s also a valuable asset – and her lovably dissolute father Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) has debts to pay, which means finding a husband and securing a dowry. Barely of age, already beckoning adulthood; but this little bird has no intention of flying in the coop.

Adapted from Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel, Dunham’s film has such a winning edge that it’s impossible to mistake. Scott stands out – his random delivery is a joy – but the entire cast works just as often, and a new and fertile comedic dynamic emerges wherever two or more characters collide. As an exhausted Rollo tries to discover Catherine, the girl’s older brother Robert (Dean-Charles Chapman, another Game of Thrones alum) excitedly intervenes — the kind of silly detail that elevates the sketch from “fun” to “unsettling.”

Tonally, it’s somewhere in the muddy vicinity of the classic BBC children’s series Maid Marian and her Merry Men, with the rudeness and candor turned up a notch, though never quite above the level of early teens. Menstruation and the loss of a child are among the difficult subjects they tackle deftly; the latter via Catherine’s endlessly pregnant mother, beautifully played by Billie Piper.

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