Movies pushing the indomitablity of human nature tend to make me want to puke, mainly because they're often created with a palpable self-congratulatory air by film-biz insiders whose real-life concept of "suffering" extends to being brought an incorrectly prepared frappuccino. This emetic response is doubled when the featured indomitable human happens to be a little boy -- usually of the adorable-but-beset-by-troubles variety and almost always a stand-in for a director who chronically confuses shmaltz with Significance. To nauseate is common, to inspire divine, but too rarely is the latter goal achieved.
Fortunately, I Am David is a solid-enough entry in the resilient-lad subgenre. This family fare is at times awkward in delivery and achingly obvious in intent, but overall it's so consumed by its own earnestness that one can't attack it without feeling guilty. Put another way: Angela's Ashes was overwrought, whereas I Am David doesn't allow its pretense to outweigh pathos.
The boy this time is, of course, David (newcomer Ben Tibber), whose life, of course, sucks. Stuck in the unhappy predicament of growing up in an Eastern European Communist labor camp in the middle of the twentieth century, our diminutive hero doesn't know his parents, doesn't know life outside his cruel milieu, doesn't know much of anything, really. For this reason, he depends upon stoic fellow prisoner Johannes (Son of God Jim Caviezel) for mentoring and advice for the dialect-impaired. (Caviezel seems to be going for Yiddish, by way of Laurence Olivier as Neil Diamond's Jewish dad in The Jazz Singer -- which is to say, it's unintentionally funny.)
I Am David
Grim is the situation, though, and twelve-year-old David ain't getting any younger. So he attempts an escape. This occurs early enough to tell you that he succeeds, but given his dearth of resources and life experience, many challenges await him. Most perplexing is that he is entrusted to carry a mysterious envelope all the way to Denmark. The quest calls.
For writer-director Paul Feig -- best known among freaks and geeks as the creator of Freaks and Geeks -- the appeal of this project may have involved a blend of telling a cuddly outsider's story and taking a paid European vacation. The trick is that all of it -- from Greece to Italy to Switzerland to Denmark -- was actually shot in Bulgaria, clearly a land of many virtues. Feig and gifted production designer Giovanni Natalucci really work a few subtle wonders. Their visuals are complemented by Stewart Copeland's wildly eclectic score, which includes everything from klezmer fiddle to synthetic drums to full orchestra. He may be sharing Mark Mothersbaugh's software.
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The movie boasts a literary pedigree, too, being based on the young-adult novel by Anne Holm, which was for many years published in the U.S. as North to Freedom. Feig tidily consolidates the book into a brisk 95 minutes, and the only complaint lies with his outrageously hasty denouement. After the audience has hung out with this kid long enough to start caring about him, his journey ends with rude abruptness.
Along the way, though, it's an adventure of loopholes and shortcuts and cowinkydinks. Amid several flashbacks to the messianic Johannes at the camp (persecuted by Hristo Shopov, who, amusingly, also played Pilate in The Passion of the Christ), David is assisted by a would-be entrepreneur (Francesco de Vito, who played Apostle Peter, also in The Passion 'sensing a clique here) and eventually learns about food, money and work via several criminally over-the-top actors, some of whom provoke David's fear.
Unfortunately, Feig lacks the chops to convey David's panic and paranoia: Every time the kid flees, he ends up on the same pretty, sun-dappled country road. David's flimsy alibi that he's "with the circus" proves touching, though; it fits well with his utter lack of trust in all humanity. This in turn prompts Joan Plowright, as a lonely yet exuberant soul, to leap to his aid. The kid's not bad throughout, but her professional flair brings out the best in him.
In essence, if you see only one European period piece this year about a passionate struggle to reunite with a loved one despite seemingly impossible odds, this won't be it. However, I Am David is by far the best after-school special to hit the big screen this season.