Greta Thunberg doesn’t want to be your hero. She wants you to be hers. All of you. Especially the grownups. She’s not here to save the world, but she hopes to inspire the rest of the world to save itself. As shown in the documentary I Am Greta, she’s succeeding to some degree, but there is a disappointing response to her position as a climate change activist, not just from the deniers but also from her supposed political allies.
At the age of fifteen, Thunberg gained fame after starting a school strike aimed at influencing the Swedish government to lower carbon emissions. Since then, she’s received a lot of attention, positive and negative, for her youth as much as for her cause, and that can be a double-edged sword. To other young people around the world, she’s a guiding light. To adults, especially in the media and politics, she’s a novelty.
Fortunately, I Am Greta doesn’t treat her as such. This isn’t a film about how cute it is that a teenager from Sweden is mad about the slow progress to curb climate change. It’s not a puff piece lifting her up as a person of the moment in obvious worthiness of a documentary showcase. It’s also not an issue film by way of a human-interest profile. And it’s not really a defense of Thunberg’s knowledge, if not expertise, about the issue either.
We do get to know Thunberg in a way that’s not been afforded her as much in the media, which superficially tends to focus on her age and the general aim of her activism. I Am Greta follows Thunberg and her father, Svante Thunberg, around Europe and eventually to the US, only by train or boat, meeting — and mostly being humored by — leaders, such as then French President Emmanuel Macron, and addressing crowds at conferences and forums.
Thunberg is given a different kind of voice in the film, as she discusses her life and her Asperger’s “superpower” (she wishes everyone could have the disorder) and her action. Outside of some direct commentary from her parents for the film, it’s all her own discourse that we hear. But she’s never really spouting details as if a scientific authority. She’s a humble warrior informed by the experts, in service of the planet.
I Am Greta is good enough as a portrait of the real Thunberg, but it’s even better for being more. For the headline of this review, I’ve copied the one I used for the 2018 documentary On Her Shoulders, which is about the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist Nadia Murad. I Am Greta feels like a remake of that film at times, not by the design of director Nathan Grossman but due to the design of political activism and the pageantry that goes with being a celebrated figure with an agenda having to stand on the world’s stage.
The main difference between Murad and Thunberg, besides the latter not winding up a Nobel laureate just as the documentary about her was being released (though she was nominated), is that Thunberg receives as much criticism as support. Furthermore, even among those appearing to promote her issue by inviting her to summits and United Nations assemblies, Thunberg seems to be trotted out for their satisfaction rather than for hers.
It’s no wonder she comes across as so angry in her speeches and so morose in her appearances. Thunberg’s whole purpose as a young activist is to remind people that children aren’t just the future but the future is for the children, and they ought to be the ones most concerned about the kind of future left to them. Her mission wouldn’t have the same significance or effect if she wasn’t a child. Her scolding rhetoric may still apply as she gets older — she’s still of a younger generation let down by those that came before — but it won’t be as striking.
Grossman and his editors (Charlotte Landelius, Hanna Lejonqvist, and Magnus Svensson) cut away from Thunberg during her speeches, most notably at the UN headquarters in New York City, to show a disrespectful lack of engagement from many in her audience. Diplomats and heads of state are on their phones and clearly not listening. She doesn’t have anything new to say to them, just a new way of saying it, but as long as she’s in the limelight, having her speak makes them look like they’re doing the right thing.
I Am Greta is not a hopeful documentary. But Thunberg does remain an encouraging figure throughout because she endures. She’d be forgiven if she just decided one day that it’s not worth it and gave up out of frustration. Seeing her smile and laugh when she’s with her family and showing some semblance of just being a kid is such a contrast to her activism persona that I felt bad for her. That fits with her continual point, of course, about the older generations having stolen her dreams and her childhood, resulting in a need for her to act.
While the film doesn’t make me optimistic about the reversing of the effects of climate change, it does end on a promising note with a final clip of Thunberg enjoying some time at home followed by a montage of other young activists angrily leading protests and marches as if in her place. Even if Thunberg can’t be a hero for the issue by herself, she has proven to be a hero for action and for spreading the message.
I Am Greta is now streaming on Hulu.