Movies pushing the indomitableness of human nature tend to make me puke, mainly because they're often created with a palpably self-congratulatory air by film-biz insiders whose real-life concept of "suffering" extends to being brought an incorrectly prepared frappuccino. This emetic response is doubled when the featured indomitable human being happens to be a little boy -- usually of the adorable-but-beset-by-troubles variety and almost always a stand-in for a director who chronically confuses schmaltz with Significance. To nauseate is common, to inspire divine, but too rarely is the latter goal achieved.
Fortunately, I Am David is a solid enough entry in the resilient-lad subgenre. This family fare is at times awkward in delivery and achingly obvious in intent, but overall, it's so earnest that one can't attack it without feeling guilty. Put another way: Angela's Ashes was overwrought, whereas I Am David doesn't allow its pretense to outweigh the pathos.
The boy this time is, of course, David (newcomer Ben Tibber), whose life, of course, sucks. Growing up in an Eastern European Communist labor camp in the middle of the 20th century, our diminutive hero doesn't know his parents, doesn't know life outside his cruel milieu -- doesn't know much of anything, really. He depends upon Johannes, a stoic fellow prisoner (Jim Caviezel), for mentoring and advice.
The situation is grim for 12-year-old David, so he attempts an escape. Because of his dearth of resources and life experience, many challenges await him. Most perplexing is that he is entrusted to carry a mysterious envelope all the way to Denmark.
Writer-director Paul Feig -- best known as the creator of Freaks and Geeks -- and gifted production designer Giovanni Natalucci work a few really subtle wonders. Their visuals are complemented by Stewart Copeland's wildly eclectic score, which ranges from klezmer fiddle to synthetic drums to full orchestra.
The movie is based on a young-adult novel by Anne Holm, for many years published in the U.S. as North to Freedom. Feig tidily consolidates the book into a brisk 95 minutes, and the only complaint lies with his outrageously hasty denouement. After hanging around with this kid long enough to start caring about him, the viewer finds that David's journey ends with rude abruptness.
Along the way, though, it's an adventure of loopholes and shortcuts and kawinkydinks. Amid several flashbacks to the messianic Johannes at the camp, David is assisted by a would-be entrepreneur (Francesco de Vito) and eventually learns about food, money, and work from several criminally over-the-top actors, some of whom provoke David's fear.
In essence, if this year you see only one European period piece about a passionate struggle to reunite with a loved one despite seemingly impossible odds, this isn't it. However, I Am David is by far the best after-school special to hit the big screen this season.