At one point in I AM GRETA, a Fox News commentator dismisses her as ‘a mentally ill Swedish child’. It’s mean spirited, as are the boos that follow President Trump namedropping her at a rally, and Piers Morgan saying on Good Morning Britain that people find her annoying and hysterical.
Those examples are part of what makes this documentary film so desperately sad. Everywhere Greta Thunberg goes she is swamped by adoring crowds and public figures who ask for a selfie. She obliges, shakes hands, delivers impactful speech after impactful speech – only for much to stay the same. She asks why politicians invite her to international events if they never intend on doing anything about the climate crisis, only to answer the question herself in the next sentence by acknowledging her presence bags the event publicity.
She’s shown to be sincere, all the more so for the fake gestures surrounding her. She has no interest in celebrity, so when crowds chant ‘Go, Greta! Save the planet!’ it places a burden on a girl who just wanted the planet to take priority in legislation.
In the process, the film shows Thunberg to be exposing the world over more than just its climate failings. Those with power think they can placate her and her generation with photo ops and handshakes. The amount of people who want to be seen with her becomes increasingly uncomfortable, stripping her image of her personhood and using it to virtue signal for likes on social media.
And then there are the death threats. The film doesn’t linger on them, and Thunberg seems dismissive, but there’s more to be said on a teenage girl receiving threats on her life in the mail. This really ought to disgust audiences, but that it is scary that it comes as no big surprise. What kind of society are we to be numbed by this kind of violence?
As a portrait of Greta-the-person – rather than Greta-the-activist – she’s candid about her Asperger’s, which she’s quick to say she ‘has’ and doesn’t ‘suffer from’. She says once she’s interested in something, she’s laser-focused. The articulate wordsmith she’s known for being contrasts with long periods of silence; socialising and small talk aren’t parts of her life. Her dad mentions she had selective mutism.
While the film may be one of hope for the future, it also shows Thunberg as a lonely teenager. On a boat in the Atlantic, far from home, she caves to the pressure and allows herself a cry. “I don’t want to have to do this, it’s too much for me,” she says, while waves crash off the yacht. There’s no doubting her conviction and sense of purpose, but there are no friends around to pick her up. Eventually, a kind of human instinct kicks in: she is one young person up against insurmountable odds, and you really just want her to prioritise herself over the climate.
Rather than hope, the film is a document of the world’s evils. Elites in parliaments who are so excited to talk the talk but never walk the walk; commentators and politicians who think publicly bullying a teenage girl is acceptable behaviour; adoring fans more obsessed with Thunberg and her status than anything she stands for. Against her own wishes, Thunberg is ultimately a symbol of hope for her belief that humans depend on each other to survive. Through all the cynicism and empty promises, she still believes in humanity enough to continue her crusade.
After all that – her messages falling on deaf ears, the death threats, the challenging Atlantic crossing – her now famous ‘how dare you’ speech barely feels angry enough. Her small stature stands tall when she looks those with power in the eyes and tells them they have failed. Not only is I AM GRETA reason to care about the climate crisis, but also the need for accountability. Opposition politicians aren’t doing their jobs, and everyday people who are affected by these things – like the climate crisis – are shrugged off by those withholding the solutions. It’s a film that made me think something is wrong – so what are we gonna do about it?