TORONTO — Lena Dunham has found a new calling that nobody could have predicted: directing kids’ movies.
The controversial writer-director whose popular HBO series “Girls” was infamously nudity-and-sex-filled has segued to the coming-of-age genre with her charming comedy “Catherine Called Birdy,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Running time: 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some suggestive material and thematic elements). In theaters Sept. 23. On Prime Video Oct. 7.
Before you reflexively shield your children’s eyes, know that Dunham’s latest effort is a reasonably appropriate mashup of “Shrek” and “Brave” with the “bring out your dead!” aesthetic of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
While the story, which she has adapted from the novel by Karen Cushman, is quite mature in spots, the PG-13 movie has a worthwhile “be yourself” message that anybody can get behind. It’s well-made, and endlessly likable.
Lady Catherine (Bella Ramsey), who goes by Birdy, is a 14-year-old girl in 1290 England — and we first meet her during a slo-mo mud fight. Despite her rough-’em-up demeanor, she’s the perfect age for her dad Sir Rollo (Andrew Scott) to marry her off to a rich guy to help pay off the debts he’s incurred from squandering money on necessities such as a wild tiger.
It’ll be a challenge, though. Dad shouts, “She’s disgusting! She’s one step away from a leper!”
And Birdy’s not hot on holy matrimony either. She’s determined to scare off every suitor that comes her way — all the while scheming with her friends Perkin (Michael Woolfitt) and Aelis (Isis Hainsworth) and misguidedly crushing on her handsome Uncle George (Joe Alwyn, who’s been too chill on-screen lately. I miss “The Favourite” Alwyn).
There are darker, true-to-life elements at play beyond the farce. Birdy’s mother (Billie Piper), for instance, has struggled to have more children since Birdy was born and has suffered several miscarriages. Also, one of the young teen’s male admirers is a creepy old dude she calls “Shaggy Beard.” Some parents might wince at that. But, come on, it’s the Middle Ages. Whaddya want? “The Wiggles”?
Dunham has made a really attractive and cohesive film, merging her modern, punky sensibilities with the dirt-and-stone drear of the time period. The music seamlessly hops between Gregorian chants via “Glee” and pop tunes. The parent-child dynamics and speaking style in 13th-century England were probably not so 2022, but there is an emotional resonance to Dunham’s take on the material. Not to mention ample hilarity.
The cast is packed with gifted comedians. Ramsey became a breakout star on “Game of Thrones” when she played that tiny spitfire Lyanna Mormont. As Birdy, she’s an irrepressible ball of rebel energy who’s instantly endearing and brimming with wit. And Scott, a brilliant stage actor best known as the Hot Priest on “Fleabag,” is at his neurotic, funny best.
I’m glad to see Dunham, who seemed to be headed for the exit after the so-so HBO show “Camping” and the off-putting mess “Sharp Stick” earlier this year, back in good form. How lovely it would be if this Middle Ages movie, which hits Prime Video Oct. 7, begins her renaissance.