Surely I wasn’t the only one who got sick to his stomach when the fourth-grade teacher just gave up for a week and forced us to watch Candleshoe, The Goonies or pretty much any Disney monstrosity. It’s hard to think of more than a handful of kids-on-an-adventure movies that aren’t clichÃ©d, syrupy nonsense; all manner of cinematic laziness has been somehow excused for decades because these are movies about kids. If our day-care standards were as high as our storytelling standards for juvenile fare, the nation’s toddlers would be kept in crates.
The exceptions are films that don’t treat children with the unspoken rules governing children. The kids are just characters in a movie that could be about anybody at any age: just perceptive, curious people. That’s Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano), the 10-year-old star of the exhilarating new Italian thriller I’m Not Scared. Oscar-winning director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo) captures our attention from the opening shots of children frolicking in the fields. It’s a standard image, but it’s accompanied by a score and a clever bit of lighting that hint at the dread to come. These children aren’t happy-go-lucky: They’re playing a nasty game that sets the tone for an unnerving story.
Early on, Michele is playing in the idyllic countryside of southern Italy when he finds a pit covered with metal and straw. Inside is a half-dead boy named Filippo. Michele doesn’t run to tell his parents; instead, he provides food and water, and he soon finds out why there’s a kid trapped under the ground of this otherwise normal town. But the journey to this knowledge is fascinating, filled with unpleasant revelations and small betrayals that involve everyone from Michele’s parents (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon and Dino Abbrescia) to the other kids in town, who prove every bit as avaricious and ruthless as the characters in any thriller.
I’m Not Scared mostly revolves around the loss of innocence, both for Michele and the town, but the film doesn’t approach this well-worn theme in the usual ways. Instead of using the main character’s youth as an excuse for lazy storytelling, Salvatores goes to admirable lengths to make us see things through the eyes of somebody who doesn’t know the full depths of human depravity that might seem almost natural to us. Raymond Chandler called it “casual evil,” and we see Michele learning about it before our eyes.
Once Michele realizes what’s going on, he isn’t sure what to do, either. His previous black-and-white experiences with life are no help, and neither are his friends, who are up to nastiness of their own. The whodunnit portion of the story is uncovered fairly early, so the conflict hinges on Michele’s course of action. To Salvatores’ credit, there’s no point in the story when Michele’s youth is an impediment to this psychological thriller. The audience never gets jolted out of the narrative with the thought that kids don’t talk like that, or kids don’t think like that. Kids probably would think like Michele—at least the smarter ones—and that’s fascinating to watch.
And a word must be said for Salvatores’ visual work, which is uniformly captivating. There are a few visceral frights along the way in this morality play, and Salvatores gets us jumping out of our seats. He has a particular fondness for tracking shots that turn the camera into an intruder—a well-worn noir technique that doesn’t feel stale in his hands.
The small cast is uniformly strong, and the dialogue is spare and cutting, leaving us wanting more background and more detail on almost every character. That’s part of the greatest achievement of I’m Not Scared: It never attempts to do too much or to be something it isn’t, such as a coming-of-age story or even a horror film. It’s simple, clever storytelling—and by the time Salvatores fades to black on a character’s wide smile, your faith in films about kids will be restored.
I’M NOT SCARED, ***.5 , Giuseppe Cristiano, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Dino Abbrescia, Rated R