I Am David, which opened in selected U.S. cities on December 3 and will be released across the country next month, is a small, intelligent family film of the type I’d thought was all but extinct; these days, family fare tends to be either blockbuster hits like The Incredibles or big-budget flops like Polar Express. But writer-director Paul Feig, who created the cult-TV favorite Freaks and Geeks and now is a director of the oddball FOX comedy Arrested Development, has been long known for his eccentric and uncompromising vision.
Based on Danish author Anne Holm’s classic ’60s children’s novel (published in the U.S. as North to Freedom), I Am David is a moving, atmospheric drama about a 12-year-old boy who escapes from an Eastern European prison camp and makes his way across post-World War II Europe to Denmark. The new film already has become something of a darling of the Right: “It tackles a subject all too often ignored by liberal Hollywood: the horrors of Communism and the totalitarian left,” according to the Liberty Film Festival, while columnist Mona Charen describes it as “a hymn to ordinary happiness–which those in the free world take for granted.”
Feig, whose work has never centered around politics, is grateful about all this but also somewhat bemused. “I’m a uniter, not a divider; I have beliefs that run the gamut,” he told me. “I’d just like to be the one who can bridge the gap between the two sides. I like people too much to see us all so divided and misunderstanding of each other. So it’s nice to see the Right embracing my movie.”
Freaks and Geeks, which Feig always described as “a high-school show for adults,” premiered on NBC in 1999 and was cancelled just a few months later. But the full 18 episodes (some of which were never aired) became available this year on DVD, including a special deluxe edition via the Freaks and Geeks website. I can’t think of a better holiday present for an oddball teen–or for someone still in touch with his inner oddball teen–than this, especially when combined with Feig’s essay collection Kick Me: Adventures In Adolescence.
Feig seems possessed of total recall plus complete fearlessness about revealing the hilariously excruciating truth about his geeky past. “In case it’s not completely obvious by now, I was a very immature kid, even as a high school senior,” he deadpans in the book’s last chapter.
Boy, was he ever. Feig was the kind of boy who disliked sports (“This dust could have been your pulverized head, man!” he imagines the softball saying, as it smacks–yet again–into the catcher’s mitt), was constantly infatuated with various girls unaware of his existence, and had an unfortunate queasiness about the many messy aspects of kid life, from being forced to share germy bottles of soda pop to undressing in gym class.
This last trauma may sound familiar to those who remember the Freaks and Geeks episode that ends with Feig’s alter ego being made to streak naked through his high school’s halls. That scene never really happened, but the awful truth, recounted in comically horrifying detail in Kick Me, was even worse: Feig had absentmindedly worn underwear to school that his mother, who’d recently taken up a hobby of drawing designs on fabric with special ink pens, had decorated with a big red butterfly for practice.
“‘FEIG’S A F*G! FEIG’S A F*G!’” Feig writes in the book, recalling the reaction of his classmates. “They had come unhinged. Apparently they’d never seen decorated underwear and the sight of it had turned them into the kids from Lord of the Flies.” Being the class clown, Feig realizes now, with the wisdom of hindsight, offers only limited protection in such circumstances. “Guys who like to beat people up don’t find funny guys particularly funny,” he says. “They just find them aggravating.”
And yet what makes Kick Me at its core a rather sunny memoir of a suburban, midwestern ’70s childhood is the subtext: Feig may have been a misfit at school, but at home he was the beloved only child of kindly older parents (despite his father’s occasional gruffness), who saw nothing odd at all about their son’s gangliness or constant wisecracking or goofy John Denver haircut.
“Part of the fun of writing these stories is being able to tell them the way they really happened,” Feig told me. That he’s able to now experience his past as fun speaks to the core fact that, as he puts it, “I was happy with who I was.” An excessively sensitive boy–at one point in the book Feig remembers walking home from grade school “tired and worn out from a full day of crushes and failures and overractions”–he was also quite self-confident.
Who but a ridiculously secure and ambitious kid, after all, would volunteer to announce his high school’s football games despite an almost complete ignorance of the sport? Not only that, but Paul forgot to wear a coat to the announcer’s booth, which turned out to be freezing, leading one of the technicians to lend him one…which naturally turned out to be memorably rank:
“There’s a smell you encounter on the occasions when you get into a chain smoker’s car on a rainy, humid day and see that his dog, who has just spent the last couple of hours running through a stagnant swamp, is in the backseat,” Feig writes. “Well that was the smell I wish I was partaking in when Pete’s coat came near my nose. In order to have a stinkier coat, Pete would had to have died and been buried in it.”
You’d also have to be preternaturally confident to begin a stand-up career at age 15, as Feig did. “I wasn’t any good, but I did it,” he recalls. “And I earned my living as a stand-up for five years,” helping put himself through school at Wayne State University in Detroit before transferring to USC’s film school.
Much of the charm of Freaks and Geeks was that its young cast looked and behaved like actual adolescents, not the sultry underwear models more typical of teen shows. As a director, Feig has a former actor’s sympathy for his cast, and he elicits a similarly realistic and sensitive performance from Ben Tibber, the young lead of I Am David. (Jim Caviezel and Joan Plowright are the adult stars.)
Two decades ago Feig was a struggling stand-up comic specializing in nerd and (later) wise-guy roles, mostly in quickly cancelled TV shows. Typical example, as Feig recalls it: “If you saw one of the few episodes of Ellen that didn’t deal with lesbianism, then you saw Paul Feig wearing a Civil War uniform and looking like a great big dork.” (He revives his old nerd persona in an I Am David cameo, as a frantically gesticulating American tourist who gives David a big tip to fetch gasoline for a stalled rental car.)
Right now, Feig’s working on a sequel to Kick Me, beginning with his post-high-school collegiate and professional life, which–naturally–is filled with plenty of freakish, geekish moments. “I’ve got a whole series of stories from when I was a Ronald MacDonald in Toledo, Ohio,” he notes, adding ruefully: “The world’s skinniest Ronald MacDonald.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.