The entertainment options for girls who just want to have fun — and also, you know, fundamental rights — tend toward slim to none. So bless Catherine Called Birdy (in theaters September 23 and on Prime Video October 7) for bringing some genuine fresh air to a genre that too often feels either unduly sanitized or exhaustively market-tested for pop-culture curb appeal: a sly fairytale about a medieval tween that manages to be both cheeky and modern without losing its heart.
Catherine (Game of Thrones' Bella Ramsey), or "Birdy," as she prefers, is the sunny, pugnacious only daughter of the flittering libertine Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and his serene wife (Billie Piper) — a girl who would rather roll around in mud and run free with her best friend, Aelis (Metal Lords' Isis Hainsworth), than be beholden to some porcelain-figurine idea of what a future Lady should be. But the good lord is also seriously insolvent, and his only real collateral is Birdy; if he can get her wed to a wealthy-enough man, they might be able to hold on to their estate. (It would help to marry off her irritable older brother too, played with entertaining pique by fellow Thrones alum Dean-Charles Chapman, but it won't pay the rent.)
ALEX BAILEY/Prime Video Andrew Scott and Bella Ramsey in 'Catherine Called Birdy'
Birdy is bereft at the thought of leaving her home and her freedom to be some crusty aristocrat's child bride — she is, after all, only 14 — and so she duly begins to sabotage her hopeful suitors, among them Russell Brand and a crude barnyard yeti that everyone just calls "Shaggy Beard" (Paul Kaye). Rollo is rightfully furious at her shenanigans, though he's also a softie who frankly adores his insubordinate daughter, as does her mother ("I cheer for you, Birdy, but I fear for you"). Further complications arrive via her beloved cousin George (Joe Alwyn) and his own struggle to make the best of his betrothal to a loopy, much-older widow (Sophie Okonedo) amidst a burgeoning romance with Aelis.
These serious but mostly surmountable issues are relayed via Birdy's own endearingly unfiltered point of view, accompanied by confiding voiceovers and winsome, cheerfully anachronistic covers of '90s alt-pop (Mazzy Star, Supergrass). What could have been either hectic or cloying, though — in the vein of the recent Renaissance-Kill Bill redux The Princess or Netflix's winky revisionist remake of Persuasion — is played with so much disarming spunk and spirit, it consistently charms. Birdy, like the best heroines on screen and in young-adult literature, isn't just an archetype. She's a bright, curious, and gratifyingly human girl — one who freaks out when she gets her period and often has to surgically remove her foot from her mouth, but rarely loses sight of where her moral compass lies.
That probably won't be news to fans of the bestselling 1994 YA novel of the same name on which Birdy is based, though some viewers may be surprised to learn who's behind its adaptation: Lena Dunham, who also wrote the screenplay. Unlike Sharp Stick, her contemporary "adult" drama about an adolescent woman-child's sexual awakening released earlier this year, the Girls auteur and early-aughts lighting rod finds a sweet spot far from the self-regarding navel of her Brooklyn-millennial gaze. She seems remarkably at ease here in the firelight and tapestries of the 13th century, letting her gifted actors run wild with the absurdist comedy of the premise — Scott, a.k.a. Fleabag's erstwhile Hot Priest, is an MVP — without reverting to smash-cut chaos or tidy moralizing. "Old World Problems, New World Attitude" is the movie's maybe-too-cute tagline, but it rings true: This little bird leans in, and learns to fly. Grade: B+