Remember when you were a kid and you got out of school for summer break? Freed from educational and parental constraints, you and your preteen compatriots were free to roam the neighborhoods, invent rules to your own impromptu games and set up your own Lord of the Flies-style empires—at least until September. I'm Not Scared starts out that way, with 10-year-old Michele and his friends spending the long days of summer bicycling around the countryside, playing in the wheatfields and generally doing whatever they please until some parental unit shouts out that it's time for dinner.
But in very short order this intriguing Italian import takes a grim turn. I'm Not Scared, which is based on the novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, remembers that childhood has its own unique brand of horrors. While playing around an old, abandoned farmhouse, Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) discovers a large pit covered over by a sheet of corrugated tin. Deep in the shadows of the pit, Michele spots a small, human foot poking out from under a blanket. Terrified, the boy runs home. Later, facing down his own youthful curiosity, Michele returns, and soon discovers a pale, gaunt young boy chained to the bottom of the pit. Who has put this boy here, and for what sinister purpose?
I'm Not Scared almost immediately assumes a fairy tale posture. It takes the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story as a given. Michele tells no one about his discovery, partially because no one will believe him and partially because someone in his tiny village is obviously responsible. Who can he trust? Can he even trust his own parents?
Though it is a thriller, I'm Not Scared continues to filter its story through the innocent eyes of its main character. Despite its would-be grisly subject, the film never seems dark or gritty, instead surrounding itself in the roseate glow of idealized summertime. Wheatfields sway in the breeze, children play freeze tag and somewhere over the next hill a little boy huddles in a damp hole in the ground. The contrast is incredibly creepy.
Director Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterranio) keeps the film lightweight and childlike throughout. This gives the whole affair a distinct and quite appropriate flavor, but keeps it from having the chilly impact that it could have had. The film nicely extrapolates on that crucial coming-of-age moment when childhood is lost and you realize that the world around you isn't the big, friendly playground you always imagined. Still, a little more grit might have served to ratchet up the tension a bit more.
Salvatores' skills as a director are evident, however. Early, goosebump-inducing scenes in which the poor, unfortunate boy huddles under the blanket like some shapeless wraith hint at what Salvatores could do if unleashed on a full-on horror or all-out fantasy flick. In the meantime, Salvatores is liable to earn himself a few more admirers thanks to this sharp childhood chiller.