Despite some recognition by minor festivals and to the joy of overprotective
mothers, this story of a boy who escapes from a Bulgarian labor camp in 1952
is a mostly juvenile effort by people far too into oversentimentalizing
reality. Mostly it's unreal, bloodless and boring but if it's a sanitized
fable of wartime childhood you're looking for, this is it.
Pre-teen David (Ben Tibber) has grown up as a prisoner under the heel of the
fascists who run a camp whose function appears to be the breaking up of
rocks. His sole friend is much older Johannes (Jim Caviezel) who mentors him
as a father. When Johannes is shot dead over a stolen bar of soap, David is
given instructions on how to escape, where to go, the advice to "trust no
one," a bag of essentials including a compass, a pocket knife, a bar of soap
and a sealed envelope for delivery to whoever meets him at his destination in
The episodes of his journey are weakly conceived idealizations by a female
author to describe a boy's mind during an adventure. It's as true to life as
a fairy tale. After days with no food, the traveler comes into a
small village where he finds a bakery. The baker unexplainably invites him
inside where, under a promise to return and feed him, he leaves in order to
call in the authorities. David is surrounded by loaves of bread, but
stoically touches none of them. We can imagine what the smell of them must
be putting his gastric reactions through, but his hands remain at his
sides, obedient and unnatural.
When he sees the baker returning with two officers, does he grab a loaf and
run as any starving boy would be expected to do for his own preservation?
No, no, nothing so depraved is allowed in the conduct of this idealized
portrait. Nothing may enter here that even suggests deliquency, not even at
the point of starvation. As an attempt at drama this is more a tract on
morality and goodness.
Not helping an essentially bloodless script (written by director Paul Feig
from a novel by Anne Holm) is the casting of the central character. It is
difficult to imagine a less dynamic young actor than Ben Tibber, or one so
physically awkward, one-dimensional, robotic and expressionless. Whatever
qualities caused him to be handed a lead role might have been found tenfold
in hundreds of compelling Europeans of the same age.
Joan Plowright lends her grandmotherly warmth to the scenario in a
penultimate episode of similar sentimentality while director-writer Feig
unashamedly plays a lost American and one more job for which he demonstrates
little talent. Jim Cavaziel ("The Passion of the Christ") upholds himself best with his
signature sensitivity as David's empathetic friend in slavery.
This is a boy's adventure seen through a gauzy feminine filter. The
ineptness of the writing is exceeded by the stiff, predictable staging.
Everything's controlled, the starving boy is well fed, the situations
ever comfortable and unconvincing. It's cocoon of safety and exemplary
conduct provides little reason for anyone past high school age to waste their
time on it. Get out the Gameboy instead.
~~ Jules Brenner