About a third of the way into the fascinating documentary “I Am Greta,” Greta Thunberg suddenly sees what is happening, and we see her see it: Who she is has become more important than what she is saying. A stranger asking for a selfie might delight your average 15-year-old girl. Thunberg is not your average 15-year-old girl. Fame just makes her more determined to be heard.
Director Nathan Grossman got lucky: He started filming the Swedish climate change activist when it was just her and a signboard outside the Stockholm Parliament. When an older woman tsk-tsks that the girl should be in school, Thunberg responds, “Why should I get an education when I don’t have a future?”
The movie leapfrogs across a year and a half as Thunberg is invited to address the Swedish government on climate change, then attend a UN conference in Poland, then embark on a speaking tour of Europe, a growing army of committed young activists marching behind her. By the time she sails with her father to an international conference in New York — crossing the Atlantic in a 60-foot boat to avoid using jet fuel — the crowds in the streets greet her as a conquering rock star. The ironies are not lost on a girl with Asperger syndrome who has never felt comfortable in social situations.
“I Am Greta,” which opens at the Kendall Square theater on Oct. 23 before coming to Hulu on Nov. 13, is a portrait of a young girl learning to use her fame to sound the alarm for a planet. The righteous anger swelling in Thunberg and the hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of youths protesting worldwide is aimed squarely at governments and grown-ups who’ve ignored climate change for three decades and stand at the precipice with empty promises. It’s clear that Thunberg knows the science and can talk about the Keeling Curve and the Albedo Effect, even if the journalists and heads of states she meets can’t. And it’s clear she has little patience for bureaucratic double-talk. “Is the microphone really on? Because I’m beginning to wonder,” she tells the British Parliament. “We have not taken to the streets for you to tell us you admire what we are doing.”
Because Grossman served as his own crew, “I Am Greta” is an intimate look at a reluctant personality. Thunberg’s father, Svante, accompanies her on her travels, tries to get her to tone down some of her more incendiary speeches (Greta bats him away), urges her to eat, for goodness’ sake, and in general behaves like a loving dad dealing with a smart, stroppy teenager. (Mother Malena, more camera shy, is heard more than seen.) These scenes put the lie to the charge that Greta is, in the words of one Fox News commentator, “a mentally ill Swedish girl who is being exploited by her parents and by the left.” At the same time, the film humanizes its subject by showing her cracking up at Dad Jokes and calling home to talk to her dogs. When this lifelong social outsider is welcomed by Belgian climate justice activists as the leader who has inspired them, we can only guess at the complexities of emotion Thunberg is feeling.
As the media meme called “Greta Thunberg” assumes global prominence — adored by peers, attacked by Trump, the subject of death threats — the actual woman behind the persona struggles with anger and doubts. Thunberg breaks down in tears as she describes to a conference the climate disasters that are already arriving at our doorstep — the wildfires, the tropical storms, the extinctions — and in the long journey across the Atlantic, Grossman’s camera captures her sadness at the “normal life” she has left behind and the heaviness of her burden. “I don’t want to have to do all this,” she says while taping a message to her mother. “It’s too much for me. I know that this is important and what’s at stake. But it’s such a lot of responsibility.” More than any other moment, this one deserves to shame adult viewers.
But doubt, the movie implies, is for private moments. “I Am Greta” builds to the September 2019 UN climate summit in New York at which Thunberg unleashed a jeremiad of thunderous proportions to the putative grown-ups in the room: “You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! . . . If you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.” That’s the money quote, but watch the full speech on YouTube for the numbers with which Thunberg backs it up.
After that, quite graciously, the movie lets its Joan of Arc return to the crowd. That September, 7 million people marched for climate justice around the planet. Greta Thunberg was just one of them.
I AM GRETA
Directed by Nathan Grossman. Written by Olaf Berglind, Peter Modestij. Starring Greta Thunberg. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. Unrated (as PG: dire ecological concerns)