It is nearly impossible to fail to engage your audience’s emotions when you’re making a film about children fleeing evil grownups. “Life is Beautiful,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “Ransom” — heck, even “Home Alone” wins us over because we naturally root for the kid. No theme is more common in film than Good vs. Evil, but if you introduce children into the mix, you create an instant bond with your audience because no matter how much they may dislike your movie, they don’t want to see any children get hurt.
I mention this because “I Am David” is not an especially brilliant film, nor does it execute its ideas with particular flair, and yet I cannot resist liking and being moved by it. Based on Anne Holm’s novel, it is about a 12-year-old boy named David (Ben Tibber) who, in 1952, flees a Bulgarian forced-labor camp (set up to enslave those who oppose the new, post-war regime) and makes for freedom. He has been given an envelope whose contents are secret and told that Denmark is where he needs to take it.
David’s first means of escape, however, is a ship bound for Italy. This is a slight detour from Denmark, but it does allow him more opportunities to meet strangers of varying degrees of kindness and to have a number of quaint Dickensian episodes as he makes his way back north: staying with a wealthy family, doing odd jobs for odd people, getting into tussles with pugnacious little boys, that sort of thing. Much of this material, in the mid-section of the film, feels like a sidetrack, marked by lovely European scenery but not much point.
It is not until David reaches Switzerland and encounters a kindly old woman named Sophie (Joan Plowright) that director Paul Feig — best known as the man behind TV’s “Freaks and Geeks” — finds his way again. David has only known the cruel life of the labor camp, having been put there with his now-dead parents at an early age. Sophie, on the other hand, has lived several peaceful decades in a world where there is freedom and beauty. Heartbreakingly, David has learned never to trust anyone, making it Sophie’s responsibility to help him see that there is good in the world, too.
Again, how can you go wrong with a story like that? For that matter, how can ANY story go wrong with the motherly Joan Plowright, all soothing whispers and warm smiles, there to dispense homey wisdom to jaded youths? She filled a similar role, to similarly great effect, in the 1999 film “Tea with Mussolini,” where she also played surrogate grandmother to an orphaned European boy. In the current film, her character’s boundless compassion and gentle discipline make her the film’s saving grace.
B- (1 hr., 35 min.; )