Based on Karen Cushman’s well-loved 1994 children’s novel, Lena Dunham presents a girl’s coming-of-age story set in 13th-century England. The sets and costumes look period-correct, but this is no attempt at historic verisimilitude à la Robert Eggers’s The Witch. Birdy is the kind of impossible, irreverent girl Dunham specializes in. Spoiled, defiant, but also capable of empathy beyond her years, she’s an almost prototypical heroine for a children’s book.
The plot turns on the family’s money problems, the solution being to marry Birdy off for as much of a dowry as she can command. Of course the girl fights this plan tooth and nail, sending a succession of suitors running away screaming. Using contemporary pop music and employing 2022 dialogue—albeit peppered with occasional medieval lingo—Dunham has fashioned a teen rom-com in period garb. It reminded me a bit of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, though pitched to tweens. Those familiar with Dunham’s previous work will be surprised by the gentleness of approach and the conventionality of the story’s resolution. In the end, Birdy comes to terms with the need to do what’s best for her family and to grow up and become like everyone else. I was very aware while watching that as a 51-year-old man I was not who this was made for. But is it a good message to send young girls that they can be bad and do what they want for a little while but when the rubber hits the road they must toe the line? PG-13, 108 min.