By: Emily von Seele
Like its titular character, The Book Of Birdie defies categorization. It is very much a film that doesn’t easily fit any label and floats freely around the minds of its viewers; it embodies no particular genre, instead choosing to be a little bit of everything and capturing the imagination along the way.
When Birdie’s grandmother drops her off at a small convent in rural Wisconsin, the teenager is thrust into a new world full of prayer and reverence. Though Birdie clearly hasn’t had much of a religious education, she is nonetheless interested by her surroundings. Prayer cards, saints, holy statues, and relics stoke her imagination. Flights of fancy give way to beautiful visual sequences and visions as she explores her new home and tries to become accustomed to her new life.
That’s the lighter side. Birdie also miscarries early in her stay and decides to pickle the fetus and keep it in a jar under her bed. She names it Ignatius and every day lights candles while praying to the various saints and holy names she has learned during her stay. She also continues to bleed, choosing to catch the blood in bowls and keep it in jars, rather than risk it staining her mattress again. Did I mention the dead nuns? Birdie can see and converse with two nuns who have died in the convent. One, a friendly woman who hanged herself from a nearby tree, sees Birdie as a special soul — someone joyous who carries the light of God within her. Another, a dark, angry woman who died at the foot of a long staircase, tells Birdie that she has been marked by Satan.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and it all exists in the space between reality and fantasy. Is Birdie touched by something holy? Or is she destined for damnation?
The Book Of Birdie frames female adolescence as something that is equal parts wondrous and horrifying. The film is laced with beautiful sequences that feel very stream of consciousness in nature as we watch Birdie explore religion, fantasy, and reality in her own way. Though many of her fancies could be read as blasphemous in the eyes of the church, she goes about them with such an innocence that it’s hard to judge her too strongly, as is evidenced when one of the nuns happens upon a statue of the Virgin Mary who has been decorated with Christmas ornaments and flowers and dressed up to look like a superhero.
The film was directed by Elizabeth E. Schuch, who also co-wrote the script with Anami Tara Shucart. The many questions raised in the story regarding femininity, adolescence, and the mysteries of women’s bodies are brilliantly conveyed and celebrated by the entirely female cast. Ilirida Memedovski brings Birdie to life in an amazing way. Her large eyes convey her constant sense of wonder and amazement as she processes the world around her in the only way she knows how.
Birdie is a curious girl who doesn’t quite see the world like anyone else. Fantasy and reality become one in her eyes, and highlight her innocence as much as her creativity. The film leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in the process, offers the audience a journey into the wonders of growing into adulthood.