Once upon a time, smart, sensitive 12-year-olds had it good at the movies. In the late ’70s and ’80s, it seemed every Hollywood studio was eager to provide brainy, arty, challenging product for baby-boomer offspring. Call it The Black Stallion syndrome: Suddenly, there was a market for kid epics like The Journey of Natty Gann, Night Crossing, Empire of the Sun or even scare-fests like Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Lady in White. Natural, unforced child actors like Henry Thomas and Lukas Haas became heroes to the bottom-feeders of elementary school playgrounds everywhere. Spielberg and Lucas still ruled the roost, but their blockbusters provided a slush fund of sorts to this second tier of low-tech family entertainment.

The bottom dropped out eventually — as it always does — but recent kid-friendly, adult-worthy flicks suggest the pendulum may be swinging back in favor of introverted-preteen entertainment. Just barely edging out Finding Neverland as the fall’s best movie for grade-skippers is I Am David, writer-director Paul Feig’s evocative, resourceful adaptation of Anne Holm’s tale of preteen adventure in post-World War II Europe.

Feig offers up the gritty details of Holm’s novel in elegant shorthand: A boy of Bulgarian-British parentage (newcomer Ben Tibber) is encouraged to escape his life in a refugee work camp, and instructed to carry an envelope full of important documents through Italy to Denmark. Told to trust no one, David fends his way through peacetime Europe with a mixture of awe and trepidation, encountering such otherwise-mundane obstacles as snarling dogs, menacing policemen and rich-kid bullies. Haunted by memories of the work camp and the disappearance of his mother, David pushes on to Switzerland, where the grandmotherly Sophie (Joan Plowright) carefully unravels the boy’s secret history and teaches him how to trust the world again.

If all of the above suggests one of those insufferable “triumph of the spirit” stories aired hourly on the PAX network, rest assured that I Am David is anything but, with tremendous talent in front of and behind the camera. The young Tibber — discovered by the same casting director who found Jamie Bell for Billy Elliot — has the kind of sympathetic, never-cloying presence of the best child actors. Without resorting to wise-beyond-his-years posturing or sappy, puppy dog-eyed pleading, Tibber’s near-wordless performance is masterful enough to pull both adults and children through some of the tale’s grimmer moments. Feig doesn’t yet have the painterly eye of Spielberg or The Black Stallion’s Carroll Ballard, but he’s always pausing to savor the moments that a real child might, like a hand stretched out of a car window, or a beautiful yet scary forest of towering trees. What’s more, Feig’s razor-sharp sense of humor remains intact. Offering a history lesson without the homework and an adventure without the Hollywood lobotomy, I Am David is the rare film that actually deserves the “great for ages 8 to 80” stamp.

  Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Woodward, Birmingham). 248-644-3456.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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