I Am David is the latest release from Walden Media, the family and education-oriented production company behind the very successful Holes, the less successful Around the World in 80 Days, and the upcoming adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This newest effort is a solid, middle-of-the-road production that makes for worthwhile, if not indispensable, family viewing.
I Am David (rated PG for thematic elements and violent content) is based on the Anne Holm novel David, published in 1963 (see below). It's the story of a young Bulgarian boy's escape from a Communist labor camp in post-World War II Eastern Europe. The journey from Bulgaria to Denmark (where David was mysteriously instructed to go) takes on both outward and inward significance. David is searching for a vague concept of freedom-impressed upon him by fellow prisoner Johannes-and, perhaps, whatever remains of his family. But he's also a quiet, reserved boy, prone to distrust and defensiveness, slowly learning to accept and show affection.
This inner awakening is not illustrated as well as it might have been. After a potent start with David's harrowing escape from the labor camp, the journey itself is somewhat episodic and ordinary. (Newcomer Ben Tibber does a nice job as David, but his intentionally inexpressive face distances the audience.) The film takes on new life in its final third, however, when the venerable Joan Plowright enters the story, playing a grandmotherly Swedish widow who breaks through David's shell.
I Am David bears a curious resemblance to The Passion of the Christ, featuring a handful of that film's actors, but doesn't offer much of real significance thematically. Religious elements are present primarily in a few muttered prayers to St. Elizabeth and a scene in a church near the conclusion; consequently, David's character growth is a bit tepid in that it's not moored to anything resembling a spiritual awakening.
Of more note is the casting of Jim Caviezel as Johannes and Hristo Shopov (Pontius Pilate in The Passion) as the commander of the prison camp. The relationship each of these men has with David, gradually revealed through flashbacks, has potential for depth and poignancy. Unfortunately, because a crucial piece of information is reserved for a surprise twist, the film only scratches the surface of that relationship.
That said, worthwhile source material and a commitment to intelligent storytelling aimed at kids make I Am David something of which the folks at Walden Media can be proud.
About the novel
The Danish journalist Anne Holm wrote her novel, titled simply David, partly because she thought that children "got such a lot of harmless entertainment, and not nearly enough of real, valuable literature." Published in the United States as North to Freedom (1963), the novel received widespread praise but deserves to be better known today. It is "real, valuable literature" in every sense.
Ms. Holm's great achievement is drawing the reader into a mind of profound deprivation. Not loss, for David, who has spent almost all of his 12 years in a prison camp, can't mourn for the love and family he's never known. Though equipped by his mentor Johannes with a moral sense, his vision and emotional range are stunted, and he knows nothing of context. The reader begins within the same constricted point of view and must put two and two together along with David. Who is he? What is his nationality? What happened to his parents? Why is he in prison?
Why turns out to be the central question, as we come to understand that we're on a spiritual journey. From blind acceptance of his lot, to a growing amazement at the world, to the adoption-and rejection-of various notions of God, David explores deeper within even as he travels further out. The main lesson from prison was that one cannot get something for nothing, and he frames his prayers accordingly. His rudimentary moral understanding has also made him self-righteous, and he feels justified in not forgiving: "You must always hate what was bad or else you grew just like them."
But mere suffering does not justify anyone. The boy needs grace as much as his tormentors, and grace comes in the unexpected form of a lowly creature, formerly despised and rejected, doing for David what he could not do for himself. "Oh, but he had never wanted anyone to suffer for his sake. . . . So one could get something for nothing after all?"
This story is not just for children, but for all of us born in bondage.
-Janie B. Cheaney