2 stars (out of 4)
"Trust no one" is the only piece of advice 12-year-old David (Ben Tibber) receives before escaping from a Bulgarian prison camp in 1952. He's given a destination (Denmark), a sealed letter to give to authorities and little else.
His confidant, Johannes (Jim Caviezel of "The Passion of the Christ"), should have added: "Beware of clumsy though heartfelt scripts."
The beautifully shot but dramatically strained "I Am David" falls prey to the defect of all poor road movies: In gluing together unbelievable but convenient episodes with sugary sentimentality, it loses most of its credibility.
For example, when David is caught trespassing on a vineyard in Italy, the stern matriarch of the villa accuses him of eating grapes and in the same breath says, "Well, it's a good thing you're here, I need help." She then sends this total stranger off with a basket of wine to deliver, and a tip.
The rest of David's journey thrusts him into similarly convenient adventures, whether it's rescuing a girl from a burning building or having his portrait painted by a lonely widower (Joan Plowright).
Steely-eyed Tibber, though well cast as David, can't overcome the dramatic conundrums thrown his way. Because he spent most of his life in the labor camp, David has a grim mug that spooks most people. Finally, one stranger says, "You don't know how to smile, do you?" What follows is an awkward scene as David forcibly moves his frown upside down with his fingers. Because the movie is based on Anne Holm's novel for young adults of the same name (released in the U.S. as "North to Freedom"), it's easy to see how this might work on the page as an internal monologue. On the screen, though, it's painful to watch.
Writer/director Paul Feig, a talented character actor and creator of the sublime (though short-lived) TV series "Freaks and Geeks," can't quite rein in the film, lazily relying on bouts of clumsy exposition (when Johannes tells David to blend in, he reminds David and the audience that the boy learned many languages from the men in camp) and syrupy, heart-tugging tactics (David learns how to pet a cat).
Though it finishes strong and Caviezel lends quiet credibility in a small role, "I Am David" wanders aimlessly, leaving us stranded and wondering exactly when we lost interest.
"I Am David"
Written and directed by Paul Feig; based on the novel by Anne Holm; photographed by Roman Osin; production design by Giovanni Natalucci; music by Stewart Copeland; edited by Steven Weisberg; produced by Davina Belling, Lauren Levine and Clive Parsons. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: Rated PG for thematic elements and violent content.
David - Ben Tibber
Johannes - Jim Caviezel
Sophie - Joan Plowright
The Man - Hristo Shopov
Elsa - Silvia De Santis