I Am Greta Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

The journey of 15 year old Greta Thunberg from sitting alone on the streets outside the Swedish parliament protesting climate change to being a globally recognised and deeply controversial figurehead for Climate activism is captured in an extensive carefully curated documentary. Showcasing her headline grabbing speeches, private exchanges with world leaders and the more mundane realities of travelling the world on her never ending mission.

The Good

Whatever people’s existing opinions about Greta Thunberg, her significance as a surprisingly young global talisman for climate change concerns makes her a fascinating subject matter. Her distinctively diminutive and childlike appearance makes her equal footing inclusion alongside the ranks of world leaders at international conventions all the more bizarre and unexpected. This account of her rapid ascent from a troubled truant schoolgirl to newfound iconic status as the abrasively demanding voice of ‘a generation’ is an interesting insight into the Thunberg phenomenon.

With seemingly unlimited access this documentary presents a complete if clearly well-polished portrait of Greta. Giving audiences a first-hand perspective on her surreal daily existence. It allows audiences to gain at least some impression of what happens in between Greta’s relentless public speaking appearances.

One of the most common accusations made about Thunberg is that she is merely being used as a childish mouthpiece for other people’s words. This documentary proves to be fairly effective in dispelling that suspicion by repeatedly showing seemingly authentic examples of Thunberg writing her own speeches with a literally obsessive attention to detail. While it won’t entirely discredit the argument that she is being manipulated and compelled by adult handlers it at least lends some credibility to the possibility the Greta may be speaking in her own authentic voice.

The film showcases plenty of Thunberg’s most infamous public speeches combined with more private footage of her in candid conversation with her father, political elites and fellow activists. Those that agree with her frequently hysterical pleas for change will welcome this convenient archive of her greatest hits. Likewise those who wish to challenge her supposed wisdom will find plenty of ammunition as well.

This film serves a valuable purpose for anyone looking to uplift or undermine Greta Thunberg. Making it compelling viewing for both polarized sides of the Climate Change debate.

The Bad

Greta Thunberg remains a deeply divisive figure. Despite the fevered global adulation she receives there are still many people that dispute her grim prognosis for the future of mankind, dismiss the utility of the school strike movement she inspires and deeply question the immense international attention and reverence given to an autistic adolescent.

This documentary is candid in admitting that Thunberg had a pre-pubescent nervous breakdown triggered by her exposure to apocalyptic warnings about climate change and the risk of imminent ecological disaster. The combination of these fears and Thunberg’s Asperger syndrome had a devastating almost fatal effect on her. As Thunberg and her father explain it forced her to abandon school for an entire year, starve herself to the brink of serious illness and barely speak for three years.

Though the film seems to hold out Thunberg’s personal struggles as sign of heroism, unfortunately many will still see it merely as emphatic proof that Thunberg is even less well equipped than an average child to emotionally and mentally handle the responsibilities of being catapulted onto the global stage as a de facto world leader on a fiercely divisive political issue.

Critics will also certainly rush to point out that despite the endless rhetoric about changing the world and angry ultimatums to political leaders, the film like Thunberg herself seems to consistently fail to articulate a single concrete achievement.

At times it seems as if the only thing that Greta’s never ending world tour has actually accomplished is creating a near cult like and clearly unwelcome celebrity status for Greta herself. Watching her awkwardly posing for selfies with enthusiastic well-wishers, she is constantly being congratulated for being ‘Greta’ rather than any actual meaningful accomplishment. Her discomfort at the clearly crushing weight of pressure and social attention heaped upon her is at time obvious and a little unsettling.

In particular repeated scene’s where a visibly distressed Thunberg refuses to eat and her permanently strained and exhausted demeanour makes for disturbing viewing. For some people even her seemingly malnourished extreme Vegan diet could be taken as a cause for concern. When she does eat on screen Thunberg seems to subsist on dry homemade pasta flavoured with a little salt. It’s actually a relief to see her reluctantly forced to eat a banana at least once.

The overall impression the film gives is that Thunberg is a lonely and troubled child, welcoming the approving glow of media attention and strangers praise but also worryingly burdened with the exhausting realities of maintaining that status while wrestling with her own overwhelming fears.

The fact that the film never seriously attempts to address the scientific or political debate about Climate Change and instead focuses so exclusively on Thunberg’s personal journey and growing celebrity status, does very little to dispel the sense that the film is merely another piece of well-polished self-promotion.

Instead of using this documentary as a platform to convince sceptics of the validity of Greta’s incessant climate concerns, it merely bombards audiences with repetitive rhetoric about’ time running out’ and a need to do more to fix the problems. The film never offers any actual solutions and in truth doesn’t even properly articulate what the problems specifically are. A total failure to make any scientific arguments at all, leaves all the frequently hysterical calls to action as little more than hollow largely meaningless words.

During one memorable private exchange with President Emanuel Macron, Thunberg is asked directly by the French leader what she most wants world leaders to actually do. Her response as presented is a simple regurgitation of  another typical ‘it’s our last chances to save the planet’ soundbite, immediately followed by a casual reminder that first world countries have to do this because the third world has a right to improve their quality of life that excuses them from any responsibility for the environmental impact they disproportionally create.

It will be frustrating for those that strongly disagree with Thunberg’s positions to see her rarely if ever directly confronted with a legitimately critical response. When the film does present a collection of negative soundbites attacking Greta’s positions, it’s used purely as a tool to garner sympathy and the more coherent arguments against her are simply never answered. The film remains mostly a steady parade of politicians and celebrities merely nodding at her in polite approval.

Thunberg herself openly questions during this documentary why she keeps being invited to give angry sometimes teary eyed speeches when it seems nobody is really listening and they’re all just playing along for the cameras. She suspects they’re only indulging her for the sake of good photo op. Sadly for once her assessment of the situation may be painfully accurate.

The Ugly Truth

This documentary will naturally by received by those who consider Thunberg to be an inspirational young hero as a proud celebration of her rise to international prominence and pop culture superstardom. In sharp contrast others will see it as a shocking confirmation that Thunberg is at best a misguided and especially vulnerable child being unfortunately exploited to spew mostly meaningless rhetoric in service of an extreme political agenda fuelled by needless fearmongering. In truth the film remains compelling and useful viewing whichever side you belong to.

Review by Russell Nelson

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