Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a teenager is picked up on suspicion of being a murder suspect, he’s detained and questioned by police for hours until he confesses, and then ends up in jail for the rest of his life. It’s a sad story that seems to happen with some regularity, from Steven Truscott, a teenager in rural Ontario wrongly convicted of murdering classmate Lynn Harper, to David McCallum, who in 1985 was supposed to have killed 16-year-old Nathan Blenner with his friend Willie Stuckey in Brooklyn. But David & Me isn’t a Law & Order-like revisiting of injustice and legal activism. It’s a film about how the most unlikely of people, and the most unlikely of connections, can teach us something profound about ourselves.
David McCallum has been in jail for all of filmmaker Ray Klonsky’s life, and was jailed hundreds of miles from the residential Toronto neighbourhood where Klonsky grew up. So what could possibly bring them together? Like David, Ray had some rough edges as a teenage and after one too many tête-à-têtes with his father, Ray’s dad decided to give him a life lesson. David and Ray become pen pals and as Ray makes changes in his live that will take him to film school and reconcile with his dad, a rare friendship is born, and Ray vows to help David leave the prison bars that he’s spent nearly two-thirds of his life behind.
Of course, it would be disingenuous to say that the film is more about the ties of friendship than it is about correcting what looks to be a grave injustice. Ray, along with his co-director Marc Lamy, build up the legal fight by showing how David and Ray came into each other’s orbits, how their friendship grew, and how Ray, a kid who apparently once cared about no one but himself, became enraptured by the idea of setting his friend free. It sets up the stakes of the film quite well because this isn’t just a director chasing some story, this is about one man helping someone who’s a mentor and father figure.
Of course, the case against McCallum has enough holes that if it was a boat, it would sink in dry dock, but that almost goes without saying. What feeds your interest, and your frustration, is the degree of difficulty it takes to get McCallum, or any wrongfully convicted man, out of prison, no matter how weak the case, or how long they’ve served. The graver injustice though is the fact that McCallum has spent the best of years in life in prison, or the fact that it’s quite likely that Nathan Blenner’s real killer has been allowed to walk free for nearly 30 years. Blenner isn’t forgotten, because in essence, there are two victims here, three if you include McCallum’s supposed co-conspirator Willie Stuckey, who will never know justice because he died around the turn of the century.
In the end, the filmmakers’ quest to find the real killer hits a dead end not because they didn’t work hard enough or because they are terrible amateur detectives, but because cases just go cold the more time you put between the investigation and the crime. In the meantime, McCallum’s done spent long enough in jail to qualify for parole a couple of times, but despite being a model prison, and because he won’t take credit for the crime that put him in prison, he remains an inmate of the New York State penal system.
The injustice of it is enough to make you spit fire, but there’s a terrible Zen quality to the man and film. Is he angry? Of course, McCallum’s never been on a date, graduated high school, visited somewhere outside the immediate New York area, held a job, or celebrated a holiday at home with his nieces and nephews, but anger will not help him. There’s a lot that can be learned from McCallum for the average viewer about how to face adversity, how to find the silver lining, and how to make peace with yourself and believe in yourself despite all the doubters. It’s never outlined step-by-step how Ray and David built their friendship, but it’s easy to see why they’re friends.
There’s a quality to David & Me that feels like a modern version of a John Steinbeck novel, the idea of perseverance in the face of hopelessness, a world capable of breaking a person’s spirit in cruel and thoughtless ways. If there’s reason to be optimistic about human nature, it’s in the idea of an innocent wasting in jail who still has the humanity to reach out and help a kid he doesn’t know and offer his guidance. It’s a beautiful, life affirming work from beginning to end.