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FIRST-PERSON: David’s uplifting journey

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Some art immediately takes your breath, such as Michelangelo’s Pieta of St. Peter’s, while the impact of other masterpieces sneaks up on you. The latter is the case for the Walden Media/Lions Gate production “I Am David,” a powerful film adaptation of Anne Holm’s internationally acclaimed novel “North to Freedom.”

David is a 12-year-old boy who escapes a communist labor camp possessing little more than a compass, an inherent distrust of people and a sealed letter. With instructions (from an unseen character whose identity is not revealed until the end) to carry the letter to Copenhagen, Denmark, David is thrust into the free world for the first time in his young life. His trek across Europe is a physical test of will as well as a spiritual voyage where he slowly sheds his cynical view of humanity and begins to smile, trust and, ultimately, love.

The film’s themes deal with the resilience of the human spirit and finding that which uplifts the spirit. It’s an affirming journey of discovery.

How do I describe writer/director Paul Feig’s way with structure or character development or polished dialogue? The best I can say is that the filmmaker, known for his wry “Freaks and Geeks” TV comedy on the outcasts of a suburban high school, magically weaves these components into a compelling drama about a person discovering the world for the first time. The film moves along with a sincere tone but never neglects the light whimsical touch needed to entertain.

As I think back concerning the technical and artistic aspects of this gentle tale, I realize that everyone participating, from cinematographer to production designer, is in top form. They must have felt the possibilities of this project, because everyone seems to be giving their all. Example: Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of The Christ”). Here’s an actor at the top of his Hollywood earnings clout, yet he has taken a small, not even pivotal, supporting role. It is, however, a necessary role. He obviously believed in the film’s message and wanted to be a part of it.

And certainly character actress Joan Plowright must be mentioned. The wife of the late Laurence Olivier, Ms. Plowright plays an artist recovering from her own tragedy. She gives a moving performance as she helps young David find his identity and destiny. Indeed, the scenes between the boy and the veteran stage actress are the most affecting in the film.

Twelve-year-old newcomer Ben Tibber also does a credible and moving job as the withdrawn boy fleeing unimaginable circumstances, somehow trusting that there is more to life than what he has known. This character and his journey are symbolic, reminding us of the need for faith and the treasure of liberty. Never precocious or cutesy, young Tibber does a wonderful job of expressing what his character feels. We are able to read his thoughts through his face.

The movie’s most powerful scene: young David walking into a church, hearing a choir rehearsing music that exalts God and revealing a tender side of mankind. As he stands there, a policeman also enters the sanctuary. At first, David is fearful as the constable takes a place next to the youngster. Government officials had always been people David was to fear. Suddenly, a calm comes over him as the policeman smiles. David is changing. His world is changing. So much is being said, without words. It’s really quite a remarkable tableau.

I Am David, which opens Dec. 3, is rated PG. Regarding thematic elements and some violence, I found nothing objectionable. Even the violence seen in the concentration camp is done without the intent of exploitation, but merely to further the story.

While the subject matter may not be suited for very little children, the careful handling of the subject matter makes this film a powerful reminder of the preciousness of liberty and the triumphant power of the human spirit.
Phil Boatwright is a film reviewer and editor of The Movie Reporter, on the Web at www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright