It’s likely that unless a person is a fan of the WWE and has been bombarded during its programming with advertisements featuring a clip of “Superstar” (Vince McMahon doesn’t like to call them wrestlers anymore) Randy Orton threatening to “go to the papers if he has to”—one of his surprisingly few (but most quotable) lines of dialogue in That’s What I Am, that they may not be aware of this film, which went pretty much unnoticed by a mainstream audience during its limited theatrical run. Since recently being released on DVD, it seems to be getting a little more of a marketing push by Wal-Mart (this observation based on a poster that I saw in the window of my local Wal-Mart.)
A welcome diversion from the go-to “wrestler plays action hero who must save his wife/girlfriend/fiancée from bad guys with guns” direction WWE Films has taken for the most part since it’s inception in 2002, That’s What I Am is a coming-of-age/anti-bullying junior high dramedy set in 1965. It is written and directed by Michael Pavone and is his first foray into feature films (he’s written episodic television up until now; among others, an episode of “Prison Break”).
At its center is Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison), an average 13 year-old boy whose goals include getting through junior high under the radar of feared bully Ricky Brown (Jordan Reynolds) and winning the affections of his dream girl, the very-experienced Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton—yes, Peter’s daughter—recently seen as Kristen Wiig’s teenage foil in the instantly-classic best-friend necklace scene in Bridesmaids.)
“Oh, I bet you’re popular.”
A wrench is thrown into the whole “stay under the radar” part when Andy’s (and everybody else’s, including the entire state of California) favorite teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) pairs him with the gangly, redheaded, big-eared social outcast known as “Big G” (the G stands for “ginger”) on a school project. Andy fears his association with Big G (Alexander Walters) will result in his being exiled to “Geek Corner” and becoming Ricky Brown’s latest wedgie-recipient. The very wise Mr. Simon has his reasons for the pairing, however, as the lessons he teaches focus on compassion and tolerance. The beloved teacher soon becomes a target himself when a revenge-seeking student he suspended starts a potentially career-threatening rumor about his personal life. (Mr. Simon is a widower who never remarried and it’s 1965; I think you can figure out what the oh-so-scandalous whispers are about…)
But really, what self-respecting gay man would wear this ensemble?
Though it’s a pretty straight-forward, by-the-numbers “lesson movie,” what keeps That’s What I Am from entering afterschool special (do they still even have those?) territory is the exceptional performances, most notably, Ed Harris’. It would have been very easy for an actor of Harris’ caliber to phone-in a convincing portrayal of the kindly bow-tied teacher in this little film and pick up a quick paycheck. But this is Ed Harris we’re talking about. Instead, he inhabits the role with much care and gives the character a depth many others would either not be capable of or bother to.
Harris’ real-life wife, Amy Madigan, is equally as effective as the principal of the school who begs Mr. Simon to just deny the rumors, whether true or not, “for the sake of the children.” Rounding out the adult cast are Daniel Roebuck as Andy’s well-meaning but short-tempered father (pretty much a carbon-copy of Kevin Arnold’s dad on “The Wonder Years”) and Molly Parker as his more compassionate mother (Parker especially makes the most out of what she is given and adds heart to the film).
Randy Orton is smartly cast as the homophobic father of the boy who starts the rumor about Mr. Simon, since the small part plays to his strengths as a brooding “heel” (wrestle-speak for bad guy), what he does best in the WWE. The children range from Hannah Montana (to be fair, for some this is their first acting credit) to very good (Ellison and Frampton are the standouts), but all are competent enough.
Though it possesses an above-par cast and its heart is in the right place, That’s What I Am, falls short of crossing the line from a nice movie to a great film. The main reason being, it doesn’t really accomplish what it sets out to do. Tolerance and compassion are mentioned throughout, however the end result is a character (albeit with dignity and class) walking away from, rather than standing up to, the opposition and fighting for this tolerance we’ve been hearing so much about. So in that respect, the bullies pretty much, well, win.
The big sendoff to the character is meant to be emotional and inspiring, but it feels empty and anticlimactic. There’s no showdown, no rally, no payoff, just a quiet exit. (It is possible to stand up for what is right and not dignify said accusations with a response at the same time. Too bad a blind Al Pacino wasn’t around to set everyone straight while pounding his fist on a table.)
When he’s not busy scenting a woman or whatever
Another frustrating resolution is when another character gives a bully his comeuppance by resorting to violence himself, which is the very thing this film spends much of its time preaching against.
The one character that stays true to himself has his last stand in the form of an uncomfortable singing performance at the school talent show, however it doesn’t pack the emotional punch it was going for due to the character being underdeveloped and the whole segment just coming off as ill-conceived.
It should be noted here that this film is “inspired by true events” and depending on how much of it is based on actual events that transpired (we’re never told), these outcomes may in fact be what really did happen. Not that artistic license couldn’t have been taken. Just had to get it out there. Moving on….
The film is narrated by an adult Andy (Greg Kinnear), a now-clichéd device used many times before (“The Wonder Years”, A Christmas Story, The Sandlot, etc.) more effectively. Here, the narration doesn’t add much to the story other than a chuckle about the present-day clarity of the absurdity of trading extremely valuable baseball cards for a cheap ID bracelet.
Another over-used gimmick seen here: the “Where Are They Now” character updates tagged on during the credits. Again, not really necessary and nowhere near as funny as the writer surely intended them to be. (It is at this point that I decided that contrary to the whole being “inspired by true events” thing, that the majority of the film must be fictional, since there is no way any of these outcomes could be any more unbelievably predictable.)
It may have actually worked if one character had ultimately turned out to be the very thing he accused another of being, but no, he became a stoner, hilarious! And no, he didn’t even rescue Brooke Shields from drowning and use the reward money to hire Van Halen to play his birthday party.
In his defense, it was 1965 so Brooke Shields had just been born and Van Halen weren’t around yet.
That’s What I Am is a good effort and a nice little family-friendly film that does manage to some effect to get its point across, though not as well as it could have. Tackling issues like bullying and homophobia dramatically requires more than merely depicting the acts themselves and that’s where That’s What I Am falters. It’s definitely a good starting point for WWE Films to begin branching out of the “blow ‘em up real good” genre and producing material of more substance though. It’s worth a viewing for the always incredible Ed Harris. (Great actor: That’s what he is.)
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Mr. Simon wears a different bowtie
Take a Drink: every time you look for Winnie Cooper.
Take a Drink: every time someone says “homo.”
Take a Drink: whenever another ex-boyfriend of Mary Clear is mentioned.
Take a Shot: when there is a mention of someone “going to the papers.”
Really, he WILL go to the papers. He hears voices in his head and they told him to.