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Based on the book North to Freedom by Anne Holm—an earnest period piece about personal and political oppression in Communist Bulgaria—I Am David may seem an odd choice for the feature debut of Paul Feig, creator of television's wry and intelligent Freaks and Geeks. But its protagonist is a twelve-year-old boy in the midst of an identity crisis, after all. Feig may have shifted milieu in his jump from small screen to large, but his basic themes are the same.
Facts of the Case
With the help of his guardian, Johannes (Jim Caviezel, The Passion of the Christ), a young boy named David (Ben Tibber, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch's London Adventure) escapes a labor camp in Belene, Bulgaria in 1952. David is given cryptic instructions to travel north until he reaches Denmark, and an envelope he's not to open until he arrives at his destination.
During his travels through Italy, he's helped by a sailor named Roberto (Francesco De Vito, The Passion of the Christ), a baker, a hapless American couple, and a wealthy Italian girl named Maria. Finally, he meets Sophie (Joan Plowright, Enchanted April), an elderly Swiss woman who helps him discover the secret of why he was sent to Denmark, and what he will find when he arrives there.
Trust no one. That's the central piece of wisdom passed to David from Johannes as preparation for his escape from the labor camp and trek across Europe. I am David is about the boy's slow discovery that Johannes's advice, however well-intentioned, is wrong-headed. The prison camp is not a microcosm of the larger world. David's journey unfolds as a series of vignettes through which he slowly discovers both the larger world and the human capacity for compassion. "You don't know anything good, do you?" Maria asks him upon discovering he's never heard Shakespeare's sonnets. With the qualified exception of Johanne, he doesn't. The movie is admirable for its complexity, considering it's a kid-friendly picture geared toward the family market. David doesn't discover people are good, but simply that they have a capacity for kindness and compassion equal to their capacity for depravity. By the end of the film, he hasn't found utopia, but a world that is more bearable even if the prospect of trusting in other people is still frightening and fraught with personal risk. The dichotomy is exemplified in one of the film's minor characters, and is paid off in a surprise ending that at first seems contrived, but is actually logically grounded in the picture's narrative and themes.
Unfortunately, I Am David's design as a family film somewhat weakens its crucial sequences in the labor camp, minimizing the brutality and undermining our sense of the depth of people's capacity for cruelty and hate. This deficiency, in turn, undermines our sense of David's wonder at the compassion he experiences on his journey through Italy. The labor camp flashbacks have a washed-out color palette that is appropriately dour, and the interaction between David and Johanne is touching and believable, but neither is enough to endow them with the gut-wrenching power they need—at least for adults. We come to understand the horror of the Gulag, but we're never made to feel it viscerally. This is partially because a Schindler's List-style presentation of the depths of human cruelty would be too much for the intended audience, but it's also because the movie's episodic structure tries to accomplish too much in its 90-minute running time. In fact, the majority of the picture's vignettes feel incomplete. Despite their aversion to the nastier parts of reality, the labor camp sequences actually come off better than much of the rest of the film. Only they, the scenes at Maria's family estate, and those with Sophie are close to fully realized. The other episodes have a cumulative effect on the story, but lack individual potency. It's not that Feig has crafted a mediocre film; it's that he's crafted a sophisticated and powerful kid's film whose subject matter made it nearly impossible for him to tell the story in a way that works equally well for adults. While grown-ups will view the picture with a conscious appreciation of Feig's willingness to assume children aren't idiots, children will simply be caught up in the story itself. Watching the film, I wished I could experience as a child. I knew it would be more affecting that way.
Ben Tibber is excellent as David. His face is simultaneously expressionless and expressive, his eyes communicating deep emotion and intelligence. A Brit, he doesn't bother with an Eastern European accent, which is probably wise. It frees him to act without the burden of concentrating on mechanics. There's an artifice about hearing a Bulgarian boy speak with a proper British accent, but Feig does a reasonable job of drawing the viewer into the film emotionally, making the conceit transparent. He's also playful about reminding us that, though the actors speak English, the characters do not. When David first encounters Roberto, the man speaks gibberish that morphs into English as young David gets a grasp on his Italian. When he meets the American couple, their car stalled on the side of the road, the man (played by Feig) declares, "My wineshop needs steak." Clearly, his Italian leaves something to be desired. Jim Caviezel and Joan Plowright bolster Tibber's performance, drawing the best out of him. They act as anchors for the picture. Caviezel's labor camp scenes are a series of cleverly constructed flashbacks, spread throughout the first two acts of the picture. One scene, in particular, is presented three separate times. In each presentation, Feig offers us new information that drastically alters our understanding of David's quest. Caviezel's Johanne is the boy's moral compass, wise, caring, but cowed and terrified by the brutish men who run the labor camp. Johanne exits the film just as Sophie enters, becoming a new adult confidante in the boy's life. These are critical roles, and Caviezel and Plowright are extremely skilled actors. Tibber's performance benefits enormously from the opportunity to play off of them.
The film is presented in an anamorphic transfer framed at 1.85:1. The image is extremely clean, but a little softer than it should be, with a tad too much grain. It's a handsome picture, though, for what is essentially a low-budget, independently produced film. Audio is presented in both Dolby 5.1 and stereo mixes. Both are excellent, offering convincing ambient space and crystal clear dialogue. The surround track is mostly mixed to the front stage. The score and the occasional sound effect find their way to the rear speakers, but there is no directional panning.
This release is far from a Special Edition, but there are a number of decent extras. Paul Feig contributes a feature-length commentary. He's a natural talker, witty, intelligent, and engaging. He provides all sorts of information about the film's production, from scripting to editing, as well as anecdotes about the cast and crew. It's a breezy, conversational, and entertaining track.
The disc also contains 10 deleted scenes. The majority are brief snippets and additions to scenes that made the final cut. The best of them are a series of short interludes in which an increasingly hungry David anguishes over whether to kill and eat a wild hare he's befriended. The scenes are indexed separately, and there is also a "Play All" option. Combined, they run nearly 20 minutes. The video presentation is 1.85:1 anamorphic, and nearly as good as the main feature. Audio is Dolby Stereo.
Discovering David is an 18-minute featurette that begins with producer Lauren Levine's discovery of North to Freedom when she was nine years old, and moves through the production of the film. It's a better than average electronic press kit that covers the selection of Feig as director, his writing of the script, and the casting process. It's structured as a collection of interviews with Levine, Feig, Plowright, Caviezel, Tibber, and others.
In addition to the commentary, deleted scenes, and featurette, the disc houses three text-based supplements. "David's Journey" is a map of Europe that traces his route through Italy and provides information about his various destinations throughout the film. "Modern Day Davids" offers brief biographies of refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. "Context of I Am David" offers background on the Soviet labor camps. These features will help children understand the movie, though adults are unlikely to find them educational or enlightening.
I Am David is a family picture sure to enthrall children, for whom it will be powerful and evocative. Though it softens some of the ugliness of reality on behalf of the younger set, its intelligence and trio of excellent performances ensures it mostly works for adults, too.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Paul Feig
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