Many a time have I carelessly smiled
While others in tears are despised and exiled.
Many a time have I taken for granted
A thing that to some would seem rare and enchanted.
Many a time have I cursed my bad luck,
My vain trivialities running amok,
When many would beg for a life such as mine,
Where the greatest annoyance is no cause to whine.
I cannot know the pain others must bear,
Each has his own that he can’t always share.
Yet in the sharing, we gain a small taste
Of lives and laments that our brothers have faced.
MPAA rating: PG
I’m not entirely sure why I checked out I Am David from my local library, the diverse stock of which has provided me with an equal measure of gems and duds in recent months. There was nothing particularly intriguing about the DVD case, and its main featured actor was Jim Caviezel, who is typically good but not what I would consider A-list. Thus, I had the rare opportunity to experience a movie I’d never heard of with hardly any preconceptions, and it impressed me in a quiet, wholesome sort of way and made me now curious to read the 1963 Danish novel on which it is based.
The eleven-year-old David is played by Ben Tibber in his only film role, and the film begins with David’s escape from a Communist prison camp in Bulgaria, following the careful directions of an unseen voice. Bearing a sealed envelope, he is instructed to head for Italy and then north to Denmark, with the added caution to trust no one. David himself is a child devoid of joy. When a baker he meets asks him for a smile, he doesn’t seem to understand the concept, never having had any reason to smile back in the camp. He’s a profoundly serious boy, and Tibber plays him with earnest gravity as he encounters new people, places, and emotions along his route.
I Am David has received a good deal of criticism in addition to fond adulation. Both critics and my VC have commented on how unrealistic portions of David’s journey are; sometimes his passage seems too easy, while other times he’s met by stereotypes and dubious acting. I can’t completely argue with these points; I myself had some issue with the ending which seemed unexpectedly simple and rushed considering the slower rate of his previous travels.
Yet I Am David transcends most of these complaints by its unassuming nature. What it succeeds at is a look at the refugee experience through the eyes of an innocent. Everything that happens is through David’s eyes, eyes that have seen grief they cannot understand. Much of the dialogue is simple and straightforward, words David could easily understand. Likewise, I attributed the occasionally exaggerated acting to how David viewed things; one exchange with two friendly parents who push David when he refuses to tell them where he’s going leaves David cringing in fear, unable to comprehend any kind of discipline but cruelty. Disjointed flashbacks of David’s time in the camp and his last day with his friend Johannes (Caviezel) become more meaningful over time, as David’s guilt and fear of anyone in a uniform are both confirmed and relieved by his experiences on the outside. Despite the rushed ending, I appreciated how the connected threads of the flashbacks provided a fitting conclusion to an overall poignant film.
I was surprised to see after the fact that I Am David was the directorial debut of Paul Feig, who is much better known for directing comedies like Bridesmaids and the recent Ghostbusters remake; his beautifully-shot first feature shows a dramatic potential to which Feig is welcome to return. As I watched I Am David, I was also pleased to realize it fit into my favorite subgenre of Meet-‘em-and-Move-On movies, the type that follow a protagonist through the ups and downs of a journey and the varied acquaintances met along the way. These interactions range from a brief run-in with an ignorant American couple to an extended stay with a generous painter (Joan Plowright). Some of these meetings seem to validate David’s distrust of strangers; others challenge him to not view the world as he did in the camp. Treating its subject matter with subdued respect, I Am David seems like a perfect film to introduce young viewers to unpleasant subjects like refugees and forced labor camps, depicting their struggles but imbuing the end result with hope.
Best line: (Sophie, the painter) “David, most people are good. They have families and friends, and they just want to live their lives as happily as they can. Oh, there will always be bad people in this world, and you’ll usually know them when you meet them, or sometimes you won’t, but you can’t let that stop you from living your life fully and freely, and making friends, and seeing the goodness in people, because if you don’t do that, you’ll never find any happiness.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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