Who is Greta Thunberg? On the one hand, practically everybody on the planet knows: She’s the Swedish teenage climate change activist with the Pippi Longstocking braids and the stern, strident oratorical style, who has resolved to be a thorn in the side of all major world powers until they make her environmental agenda their top priority. So famous is she that plenty of older men in politics and media seem to forget she’s a person at all, variously denigrating her as a “little turd” or a “mentally ill Swedish child” who, in the words of U.S. president Donald Trump, “must work on her anger management problem.” We know she has Asperger syndrome, and has described her diagnosis as a “superpower” rather than a disability. We know she’s still in school, and has rather more on her plate than most kids her age.
None of this, however, is the same as knowing who she really is: what she thinks, feels, loves and hates, what makes her tick behind that impressively poised public persona. A slickly assembled bio-documentary from the Hulu stable, “I Am Greta” feigns to ask the question answered by its declamatory title, only to present us with all the details we already knew in response. As a summation of her remarkable achievements to date in public life, Nathan Grossman’s film is reasonably thorough, and sometimes rousing, amply showcasing Thunberg’s candid gifts as a truth-to-power speaker. Yet as a portrait of the girl behind the cause, it’s cautious and rarely illuminating, speckled with moments of domestic intimacy that nonetheless feel carefully vetted.
Grossman, a Swedish filmmaker introduced to the Thunberg family before she became a household name, benefits from the earliness of his access. His camera is there to follow her clear, compelling and remarkably swift trajectory from lone protester — skipping school to quietly demonstrate outside Swedish parliament, to the bewilderment of passersby — to the figurehead of a millions-strong global movement. That is achieved via a crammed appointments diary of speeches, meetings and conference invitations across Europe and, following a climactic and much-touted sea voyage, the United States. The film effectively adopts the structure of that exhaustive travel itinerary, criss-crossing from a UN climate conference in Poland to the EU Parliament in Brussels to an awareness-raising visit to Germany’s devastatingly razed Hambach Forest, and so on.
Along the way, we’re shown celebrity encounters with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emmanuel Macron and former British House of Commons speaker John Bercow, all of whom nod, smile and congratulate Thunberg on her drive and principles. It’s clear these are glib publicity obligations rather than true meetings of minds, and “I Am Greta” is most interesting when its young subject calls out such formalities. “We haven’t taken to the streets for you to take selfies with us and tell us you admire what we do,” she says in one of her conference addresses, which get pithier and more pointed over the course of a year.
Thunberg speaks of her exasperation at empty gestures of allyship (“Everyone promises to shape up [but] it’s a role-playing game,” she sighs), though a cannier, more self-aware doc would consider the filmmakers’ role in all this. Is “I Am Greta” serving her message or merely sympathizing with it? In its most affecting moments, Grossman’s film shows how her personal and environmental anxieties come to a stifling head in attacks of ennui or stage fright prior to major engagements, though it’s debatable whether the camera is her friend or foe in such circumstances.
If such scenes — along with lighter off-duty ones, as when she laughs off Twitter trolls while scrolling through her phone at home — offer us flickers of the “real” Greta, the film still invites more questions about her life than it answers. Her father Svante may be shown by her side throughout her travels, but we’re given no details as to his personal history, or what enables him to devote his life full-time to his daughter’s campaign; her mother is glimpsed fleetingly, and the rest of her family not at all. We look in briefly on Thunberg’s middle-school graduation ceremony, but otherwise her school life and place in her peer community are left for us to vaguely surmise.
That’s not especially surprising: Thunberg owes her public no great personal access, and “I Am Greta” is clearly at some pains to respect and protect the mental health of its young and vulnerable heroine. But it does mean Grossman’s film runs into the same wall as Davis Guggenheim’s similarly constructed youth-activist profile “He Named Me Malala” some years ago: It’s all but impossible for a documentary to reveal a new side of its subject while keeping a tactful distance. That conundrum is unlikely to stop “I Am Greta” from being a considerable crowdpleaser as it travels the festival circuit following its Venice premiere, or when it lands Stateside on the Hulu platform from Nov. 13. But assuming her career continues to prosper in the determined direction it has taken, there are doubtless more penetrating profiles in her future.