“You’re a little confused, aren’t you, dear?”, says a kindly, smiling nun to Birdie (newcomer Ilirida Memedovski) – and we know from the way the nun is also hanging from a noose that she is right about Birdie’s confusion. Another, less kindly nun, lying ashen and bent at the bottom of a spiralling staircase, accuses Birdie of letting the devil inside.
It is a confusion that viewers must try to sort out for themselves. The blood that spills all over a washbasin in the film’s opening sequence turns out to be from Birdie’s nose rather than her wrists – but the way Birdie smears the liquid over her face and the bathroom mirror indicates that something is not quite right with the girl, while also introducing a recurrent motif of blood and menstrual fluid (even the comic book that Birdie reads is called Scarlet Beacon).
Left at the convent for safekeeping by her grandmother (Kathryn Browning), shy, wide-eyed Birdie quickly settles into its rhythms. Much as the chapel houses a bony finger said to have belonged to St Lucretia, Birdie secretly keeps her own relics – chiefly the messy discharge from her heavy periods, redubbed ‘holy visitations’ – and engages in private improvised rituals. Whether these are blasphemous rites, saintly miracles, acts of madness, or coping mechanisms for a traumatic past, Birdie’s full retreat into the convent’s inner life is also an eschewal of external realities and a drift into the spiritual and existential. Sitting at the shore of a wintry Great Lake discussing with her new girlfriend Julia (Kitty Hall) whether Michigan actually exists, Birdie is caught on that confusing cusp of adolescence where every issue – of the body, of the environment, or relations – seems theological. Birdie is anchored only in a comic-like animated dream.
Boasting an all-female cast and a mostly female crew, Elizabeth E Schuh’s debut is a beautifully designed picture-book tale of a visionary young woman struggling to find her own Order in the confusing world around her.
The Book Of Birdie is available on VOD in North America now. No UK release date has been announced.