Based on Anne Holm’s celebrated 1963 novel North to Freedom, Paul Feig’s I Am David is an earnest coming-of-age story about a young boy’s escape from a 1950s European labor camp and his subsequent journey to secure freedom in Denmark. Shot on location in Bulgaria, this monotonously nondescript film charts the unlikely odyssey of David (newcomer Ben Tibber) as he flees the concentration camp, hitches a ride on an Italian tomato freighter, and then uses his trusty compass to make his way to Switzerland in order to deliver a mysterious letter given to him by an unlikely benefactor. Yet despite being a respectable if unexceptional children’s fable, it’s puzzling that the modest, sentimental film is arriving in theaters rather than on the small screen as a Hallmark Channel movie-of-the-week. Feig, who created NBC’s short-lived critical darling Freaks and Geeks, constructs his movie as if it were for television, using unimaginatively straightforward photographic compositions (no one ever leaves the center of the frame), a nonchalantly generic score, and two-dimensional characters and dilemmas to create a blandly inoffensive tale of youthful self-realization. Projected large, the film feels awkward and small.
David has never known life outside his labor camp prison, and thus when this babe heads out into the proverbial woods, he encounters a variety of people who teach him how to use silverware, trust his fellow man, and smile. As in Holm’s book, David’s mission has been stripped of its precise historical context, so although it’s clearly the ‘50s, it’s never clear why the kid is in a camp, who might be running said torture chamber (they look like Nazis or Soviets, but are never clearly identified), or why the Gestapo are policing Europe by trying to stamp out all forms of (unspecified) dissent. While young kids may not think twice about such historical indistinctness, the filmmakers’ decision to follow Holm’s lead and not directly confront WWII, the Holocaust or the Iron Curtain diminishes the brave young protagonist’s achievements and dilutes the film’s message about courage, resilience, and the inherent goodness of the world.
Still, although the film’s climax ultimately hinges on a rather unbelievable characterization of fascist kindness, Tibber unaffectedly conveys the fear and wariness of a boy whose life has been nothing but a prolonged nightmare, and Joan Plowright effortlessly lays on grandmotherly sweetness as a generous painter who helps David cross into Switzerland. And in a role seemingly designed to further cement his reputation as the reigning king of movie saintliness, Jim Caviezel appears briefly (in flashbacks) as a compassionate labor camp friend of David’s who, in the spirit of justice and integrity, performs a Christ-like sacrifice for the welfare of his fellow man. Can we get this guy a permanent crown of thorns?