‘I Am Greta’ Offers an Intimate Look at Teenage Climate Activist Greta Thunberg 

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg goes out of her way not to leave a carbon footprint but she left a lasting impression from the first steps she took. The Hulu documentary “I Am Greta,” directed by Nathan Grossman, opens as Greta skips school to park herself in front of the Stockholm parliament with nothing but a picket sign explaining she’s on strike for climate control. She didn’t call ahead. She didn’t alert the media. She just sat, with the sign, and people came to her. 

The film shows a wide range of people being drawn to the young, and ultimately cold and hungry, protester. Some are condescending, others indulgent, but most just don’t get it. One lady explains she’s too old to start worrying now, another is young enough to care, but in too much of a hurry to care at the moment. That’s the problem. The moments are slipping away fast and Thunberg, with her whole life ahead of her, wants to live the whole life which is ahead of her, or should be. When the first person sits down next to Greta, and a second, it is exultant. A movement starts, and the audience gets hooked.

Thunberg is unselfconscious. But Grossman allows her and her father Svante Thunberg to overshadow the climate change discussion. We do want to know how Grossman knew to be at the Parliament every Friday. Did he know she was going to get the attention of the world? This is Grossman’s first documentary feature. He was a film student in 2018, when he heard about a 15-year-old girl calling a “School Strike for Climate.” “I Am Greta” is a second strike.

As compelling a character as Greta is as a political upstart, her less guarded moments are the ones which hit her message home the hardest. Sometimes she’s really a kid. Greta can completely lose herself in laughter, sometimes at the silliest things. She lets the spray of the sea hold her up on her transatlantic crossing from Europe to New York on a carbon-neutral vessel, which is less polluting than plane emissions. Greta is absolutely a child, but one who pays attention. Just listen to how fluent she is in English. 

Some of Greta’s “laser focus” might come from her Asperger’s Syndrome. “I have it, I wouldn’t say I suffer from it,” she explains early in the film. “I sometimes think it might be good if everyone had a little bit of Asperger’s, at least when it comes to the climate,” she says as she grooms her horse at the end of the film. The documentary shows the activism helped cure Thunberg of her “selective mutism” and “compulsions.” Something which makes her mother, the singer Malena Ernman, who represented Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2009, tear up as she describes the short-term effects. The Asperger’s condition may have given her the ability to “see through the static,” but it also makes Greta go into bouts of depression, and makes her very mad.

And can you blame her? Once Greta gets international attention at the European Commission in Brussels, world leaders rush over to shake her hand and tell her how amazing she is, and how proud they are there are young people like her in the world. They pose for selfies with her, jumping on what they see as her fifteen minutes of international fame the same way they capitalized Malala Yousafzai’s campaigner for equal education in Pakistan after Davis Guggenheim’s “He Named Me Malala.” Thunberg is an after-school special to them, a human-interest story they can photobomb. But they’re not going to lift a finger to help her no matter how many times Arnold Schwarzenegger retweets her. The commissioner Jean Claude Juncker is more interested in coordinated flushing.

Thunberg is authentic. She is taking action because she has no choice. “I don’t want to have to do all of this,” she sobs, breaking down on the deck of the ship. Why should it fall on her shoulders when 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions? Oil companies want people to believe they can make a change through personal sacrifice, just so long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line. By the time Thunberg docks in New York, she’s ready to roll over heads of state like the real-life scenes of environmental disasters Grossman edits over public officials’ voices, including Trump’s, dismissing the whole thing.

“The eyes of all future generations are upon you, and if you fail us, I say we will never forgive you,” Thunberg warns assembled world leaders at the UN Climate Action summit in New York before joining tens of thousands of protestors on the streets. “Once the climate crisis has got your attention you can’t look away,” Thunberg says. “Once you understand the magnitude of the problem, you can’t erase it.”

“I Am Greta” works as a chronology of Thunberg’s growth into a movement leader at the cost of her childhood. The young and committed social activist allows so much accessibility to the director it is almost an intrusion. There are few voices in the film besides Thunberg, and the documentary leaves little room for contrary opinions or ammunition for those who would tear down the message. “I Am Greta” also works as a coming-of-age film set in a world where grownups promise one thing and do another. Greta belongs to a generation without a future fighting a broken system. The film drops as the world is distracted by the more immediate concern of the coronavirus pandemic and just might be effective in infecting viewers with the idea of taking action.

I Am Greta” begins streaming Nov. 13 on Hulu.