Based on Anne Holm's novel North To Freedom, I Am David starts in a Bulgarian labor camp in 1952 and ends its unlikely journey in Copenhagen, in a roundabout adventure that never remotely intersects with suburban Detroit circa 1980. This will come as a special disappointment to the TV cognoscenti, who know writer-director Paul Feig as the co-creator of Freaks And Geeks, a winsomely nostalgic series that evoked his high-school experience with a precise attention to language, décor, and other period details. And, while it's not always necessary for filmmakers to relate that closely to their material, Feig's marked distance from the story of a sullen boy who parts the Iron Curtain may account for its generic artlessness. Based on the onscreen evidence, it would be impossible to tell the difference between the creator of Freaks And Geeks and the creator of, say, Saved By The Bell: The College Years.
Much like the title character in Andrei Tarkovsky's superior My Name Is Ivan, the young hero of I Am David has grown up in a bleak environment and knows little but human cruelty. As the film opens, 12-year-old Ben Tibber escapes from a Communist labor camp with nothing more than a compass, half a loaf of bread, and a sealed envelope to carry across the continent from Bulgaria to Denmark. After stowing away on a Mediterranean freighter, Tibber gets his first taste of freedom in postwar Italy, but he keeps his head down and follows the advice of his camp friend Jim Caviezel, who warns him not to trust anyone. Though some people help him along the way, including an aristocratic family that provides temporary shelter, Tibber intrepidly journeys north and finally encounters an ally in Joan Plowright, a kind-hearted widow who leads him into Switzerland and beyond.
Feig holds off on the big revelationswhat's in the envelope? who helped the boy escape?for as long as he can, but once he shows his cards, the identity of Tibber's mysterious benefactor is just too outlandish to be believed, though the film's problems run deeper. Stuck shooting a period odyssey on a budget, Feig and his crew cut corners at every turn: Save for an occasional respite in the countryside, the entire second act seems to take place in the same quaint Italian village, with interchangeable storefronts and caricatures. Though Tibber's lack of expressiveness is embedded in his character's plight, it also leaves little to engage with beyond the grind of a long journey. When the poor kid cracks his compass, he's not alone in being mired in an aimless funk.