Greta Thunberg has been a well-known and controversial public figure for about two years now, which makes the images of her in the opening sequence of the documentary I Am Greta unexpectedly poignant. The 15-year-old is seen sitting alone against a wall near the Swedish legislature, with a handwritten sign announcing her refusal to go to school, as a protest against the government’s unwillingness to address the climate change crisis in any urgent or meaningful way. No one who walks by knows who she is. Occasionally, an adult will kneel down to ask if she’s okay, but when she starts to talk about the environment—and offers them her detailed fact sheet—they scurry away as quickly as they can. This looks to be an inauspicious start to one of the most significant political movements of our era.
There’s something else going on in that opening. Toward the end, some young adults and older teens start flocking around Thunberg, excited by what she’s doing. As frustrated as she is when people ignore her, it’s almost worse when they want to talk to her. Diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder that makes casual conversations difficult—and which makes her want to revert to compulsive behavior or to stony silence when she feels overwhelmed—Greta mostly appears to want the passersby to heed her warnings and then leave her alone.
That tension—between what Thunberg feels driven to accomplish and how draining it is for her—sets I Am Greta apart from the typical issue doc. Director Nathan Grossman certainly means to educate viewers about climate change. But he’s just as interested in letting people get to know this unusual teenager, who has taken on far more than she ever should’ve had to shoulder.
The opening sequence is also indicative of the level of access Grossman had. Very little of I Am Greta is drawn from news footage. Grossman was actually there with his camera when Thunberg started her protest, and he kept filming her over the course of the next year, as she was invited into meetings with world leaders and asked to speak at international conferences. The documentary spends much of its running-time on Greta’s life behind the scenes, where she tries to cope with the stress by quietly dancing around her home—and where her worried father tries to make sure she remembers to eat. Even at the bigger events, Grossman stays focused on his subject, watching Thunberg’s irritated and exhausted reactions as older politicians make pledges for incremental changes in, say, toilet flow.
The rhythm of I Am Greta can get a little repetitive. Once Thunberg’s campaign becomes a global phenomenon, her experiences in each new city follow the same pattern, over and over: She’s greeted with cheers by fans and followers, she gives an impassioned speech about the need for revolutionary thinking to save life on Earth as we know it, and then she gets so annoyed by the timidity of the grown ups in the room that she either checks out entirely or has a minor meltdown that distresses her dad.
Still, there’s something instructive in how little progress Thunberg seems to make even with sympathetic politicians—which means that she has to keep raising her pitch. And there’s definitely something infuriating about all the clips of world leaders and snarky TV pundits mocking Greta, calling her stridently angry, dangerously naive, and even “mentally ill.” She endures all this—and even takes turbulent transoceanic trips on a small boat, to keep her carbon footprint minimal—so she can keep sounding a red alert that gets louder every time she speaks.