North to freedom

Ben Tibber is neither cute nor condescending as the young David, who is making his way on foot from Bulgaria to Denmark after escaping from a forced labor camp in I Am David.

The journey is dark but the soul is light in this young-adult-fare film

A boy needs more than a compass, a pocket knife, a bar of soap, and a loaf of bread to make it alone on foot from Bulgaria to Denmark. But 12-year-old David has luck and pluck and very little choice. He has lived most of his life in a forced labor camp, and escape is the only alternative to probable death. The year is 1952 and, following the instructions of a man who, though heard in voiceover, is not identified until late in the film, David slips under barbed wire and out of the clutches of brutal guards who have murdered his friend Johannes (Caviezel). "I don't even know who I am," says David at the outset of his journey. In his final words, "I am David," lie the wisdom of self-discovery.

David is an innocent who has been witness to routine atrocities, and his innocence consists of his certainty that the rest of the world is an extension of Belene, the prison camp in Bulgaria created to punish dissidents, like David's parents, of the Communist regime. An incident in which someone else is shot to death instead of him convinces David of his own unworthiness. He never truly escapes from Belene until he learns to accept the virtues in himself and others.

Based on a novel, North to Freedom, by Danish author Anne Holm, I Am David follows its young protagonist's eventful journey toward freedom and enlightenment. "The world is filled with terrible people," says David to Maria, a wealthy girl in Italy whose life the wandering urchin saves. In its grateful, lavish hospitality, her family tries to prove him wrong. Wrested from his loving parents, David is a connoisseur of terrible people, but during his flight across Europe he also encounters people who tempt him to violate his principle of survival: "Trust no one." A sailor who helps him stow away, a baker willing to exchange a biscuit for a smile, an elderly woman who, painting his portrait, sees "a very intelligent and a very serious and a good person" behind his wary face - all help affirm faith in human benevolence. So, too, does the abrupt way that the film, departing from Holm's novel, gets David to Denmark. It is a narrative deus ex machina, whose god takes pity on lost, abused boys.

I Am David

Dir. & writ. Paul Feig, based on a novel by Anne Holm; feat. Ben Tibber, Joan Plowright, Jim Caviezel (PG)
Director Paul Fleig makes use of frequent, fleeting flashbacks that gradually explain to the viewer just what happened in the Bulgarian labor camp and why one jittery lad is undertaking this treacherous expedition. The film creates considerable tension at every stage along the way: Can David outwit or outrun those who seem to pose a threat to his progress? But the viewer is never required to share the boy's fundamental uncertainties. After earning our trust in the opening sequence, the film never leaves any doubt that smiles are superior to pouts and that a happy life - like a satisfying outing at the movies - depends on trust.

Ben Tibber is neither cute nor condescending in portraying sullen, suspicious David, and the film does not patronize its younger characters and viewers. But what marks this as "young adult" material is its facile dichotomy of "good" and "bad" and its compulsion to reassure vulnerable viewers that everything in its dreadful universe ultimately works out for the best. It is a relief to believe that nothing is rotten, not even in Denmark.

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