Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 08 October 2005
Source Kino Swiat International 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
Films about childhood run the gamut from sugar-coated, whimsical tales to painful, unsentimental coming-of-age stories, their content often dictated by their point of origin. Unsurprisingly, Hollywood tends to look on the brighter side of things, while Europe takes a more jaundiced view (e.g. Ponette, My Life as a Dog, and, of course, The 400 Blows). In I Am, Polish director Dorota Kedzierzawska adopts the latter approach but makes the fatal error of transforming the trials and tribulations of childhood into a melodrama so relentlessly downbeat that it risks becoming a parody of itself.
Shot in luminous autumnal shades (which bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones featured in this season’s J. Crew catalog), the film chronicles the life of a boy subtly nicknamed Mongrel. Stuck in an orphanage, where he is tormented by his peers, Mongrel hatches a plan to escape and return home to his mother, who had callously sent him away so as to free up her social life for men, booze, and drugs. Needless to say, she doesn’t welcome him home with open arms, so he is forced to take shelter in an abandoned boat. The residents of the small town in which he lives seem to be more or less aware of his homeless existence but blithely carry on as if they don’t notice. The one exception to this rule is Kuleczka, the 8-year old girl who lives in the lavish home opposite Mongrel’s boat. Although she appears to have the perfect family life, she feels physically inferior to her beautiful older sister, and in Mongrel she finds the first person she can truly consider a friend and confidante. The fragile bond they create, however, turns out to be a fleeting one.
Although the film is not without its touching moments, particularly in depicting the budding friendship between Mongrel and Kuleczka, the bulk of it feels like a second-rate retread of My Life as a Dog. Kedzierzawska has a talent for evoking a child’s worldview, but her script remains painfully overwrought. Groan-inducing scenes abound, such as when Mongrel is informed the kittens he played with the previous day had been drowned because no one wanted them. His response: “Nobody needs me, either! Why don’t you just drown me?!” In addition, the character of Kuleczka would have been better suited to an adolescent actress; played as an 8-year old, her self-esteem issues and drinking problem seem a tad advanced. The movie is beautifully shot, but this seems at odds with the cruelty on display, and the over-the-top classical music that plays throughout only adds to this disjointed atmosphere. At the end, I Am shies away from total bleakness, but at that point has all but sacrificed any shred of authenticity.