Based on Anne Holm's 1963 novel North to Freedom, I Am David takes a taut tale and gradually deflates it. David begins as a compelling escape thriller, but as the story becomes more symbolic, it takes on schmaltzy baggage that brings it heavily to the ground.
About 12 years old, David grew up in a brutal Bulgarian labor camp, routinely seeing the adult prisoners beaten and murdered by guards for minor infractions. (David's Oliver Twist-style English accent only gets explained at the film's conclusion.) The film's crisp, detail-oriented first scenes follow David as he makes a daring escape from the camp.
During this sequence, we hear the voice of David's cynical but otherwise enigmatic grown-up accomplice. He directs David to pack necessities -- a knife, a bar of soap, a loaf of bread and a compass -- and instructs him to deliver a mysterious sealed envelope to an address in Denmark. Otherwise, trust no one.
When David smuggles himself onto a cargo truck and narrowly avoids arrest, I Am David is nearly the next best thing to a first-person adventure story. When he eventually arrives in an idyllic Italian village, suspicion provides his only frame of reference: Everyone he sees, from kindly old folks to tow-headed urchins, looks like a potential informant. Friendly people summon police to help David, but he thinks anyone in a uniform is a police-state thug.
Writer/director Feig chronicled different sorts of adolescent torments as the creator of the short-lived TV series "Freaks and Geeks." You can see how he'd be interested in dramatizing the life of a young person under life-or-death pressures after having explored ordinary suburban ones with such wit and sensitivity. But "Freaks" drew its strengths from personal experience, and David feels increasingly removed from real life.
As the boy makes his way northward, the people he encounters feel increasingly like ethnic stereotypes, from earthy Italian bakers to oh-so-civilized Swiss border guards to clueless American tourists (one played by Feig). David's journey becomes increasingly allegorical. Finding sanctuary with a rich family, he glimpses the extremes of class differences, while later he gets an up-close view of political conflict when he arrives literally in the middle of Socialist demonstrators and police in riot gear.
I Am David's most memorable characters come from brief flashbacks at the labor camp. David finds an angel in gentle inmate Johannes (James Caviezel), whose round-framed glasses mark him as a persecuted intellectual. Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov portrays an intimidating commandant with remarkable subtlety: He captures an "oppressor's" divided nature and moral calculations in only a few short scenes.
Tibber's performance effectively conveys the wounds of David's soul. He flinches before strangers and humorously conveys his efforts to fit in by forcing his smiles. But the closer the film gets to the end, the more explicitly Feig spells out its themes. By the last scenes, Joan Plowright's grandmotherly artist clucks bland dialogue about the importance of trusting people and enjoying life. Ultimately, I Am David feels more at home in hell than in heaven.