The thirst for freedom drives a resourceful boy across Europe in unusually intelligent adventure film scaled for younger viewers, which never leaves adults behind. October release may miss the sweet spot of school-age crowds that a counterprogrammed late-summer break would capture; ancillary looks rosier.

The thirst for freedom drives a resourceful boy across Europe in “I Am David,” an unusually intelligent adventure film scaled for younger viewers, which never leaves adults behind. Faithful adaptation of Anne Holm’s respected novel about a Bulgarian boy’s escape from a 1952 Stalinist labor camp in Bulgaria and his dangerous flight on foot to Denmark, pic transfers familiar tropes from WWII escape thrillers to the far less dramatized context of post-war Communist East Europe. October release may miss the sweet spot of school-age crowds that a counterprogrammed late-summer break would capture; ancillary looks rosier.

“I Am David” may not be as harrowing or surreal like Lewis Begley’s “Wartime Lies,” which Stanley Kubrick came close to putting on the screen. But writer-director Paul Feig — in an unlikely jump from his frequent TV gigs (“Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared,” “Arrested Development”) — keeps the saga on track dramatically, even if it lacks visual imagination.Moreover, superb young thesp Ben Tibber is an ideal and haunting embodiment of a youth damaged by imprisonment but wily enough to survive.

First viewed in suffocating close-ups, David is instructed by an off-screen voice to flee to Denmark, and given an envelope and some tips on each step of his escape — potently staged in a 15-minute sequence that promises a greater film than the one that actually develops.

David narrowly is able to stow away on an Italian freighter in Greece, where he recalls instructions to “blend in” with locals. This is cleverly handled for English-lingo auds when shipmate Roberto (Francesco De Vito) barks at David in Italian, which the boy then processes nto English.

True to the code of youthful adventure sagas, each run-in with adults in “I Am David” is fraught with both danger and opportunity. Spotting a cabin on flames, David rescues a pretty girl named Maria (Viola Carinci), who turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy family. Amid domestic comforts he hasn’t known since early childhood, David nevertheless feels he must flee when Maria’s parents start asking too many questions.

Feig’s script occasionally relies unevenly on repetitions. The constant voiceover intrusion of the opening scene’s male guide grows wearying, while flashbacks that reveal more and more of a crucial incident in the labor camp involving David’s older friend Johannes (Jim Caviezel, whose presence is effectively fragmented) builds to an internal climax that artfully connects with the larger story.

By the time David runs into Roberto again — now driving a truck conveniently in David’s direction — and then stumbles upon a grandmotherly Swiss lady named Sophie (Joan Plowright), “I Am David” has left behind its early identity as a tense thriller to become a gentler, more conventional tale of restored hope and a return to maternal comfort.

Tibber’s marvelously scrunched face and hollow eyes are the surest signs that sustaining the initially darker film would have been more rewarding, and his ability to open slightly to strangers’ love is the most interesting thing to watch in the pic’s second half. Plowright uses her kind mien in some good emotional moments; Hristo Shopov (Pilate in “The Passion of the Christ”) is once again in the position of condemning a character played by Caviezel.

An international production squad, led by Roman Osin’s coppery lensing, resourcefully uses various Bulgarian locations to serve as the adventure’s trans-Europe odyssey. Composer Stewart Copeland’s normally creative touch is here a bit heavy-handed.

I am David

Production

A Lions Gate Films release of a Walden Media presentation of a Film and General production. Produced by Clive Parsons, Davina Belling, Lauren Levine. Directed, written by Paul Feig, based on the novel "North to Freedom" by Anne Holm.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Roman Osin; editor, Steven Weisberg; music, Stewart Copeland; music supervisor, Lindsay Fellows; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; art director, Nasko Ianakiev; set decorator, Antonello Rubino; costume designer, Uliva Pizzetti; makeup, Laura Borzelli; sound (Dolby Digital), Bruce White; sound designer/sueprvising sound editor, Mark Binder; special effects coordinators, Mark Holt, Vasko Dikov; digital visual effects, Capital Fx; supervising stunt coordinator, Jordan Zahariev; line producer, Andrea Borella; assistant director, Mary Soan; casting, Pippa Hall, Shaila Rubin. Reviewed at Artisan screening room, Santa Monica, Aug. 16, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

David - Ben Tibber Sophie - Joan Plowright Johannes - Jim Caviezel David's Mother - Maria Bonnevie Maria - Viola Carinci Elsa - Silvia De Santis Roberto - Francesco De Vito Giovanni - Paco Reconti The Man - Hristo Shopov Carlo - Alessandro Sperduti
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