Title: That’s What I Am
Director: Mike Pavone
Starring: Ed Harris, Chase Ellison, Molly Parker, Daniel Roebuck, Randy Orton, Daniel Yelsky, Alexander Walters, Mia Rose Frampton, Amy Madigan
The fact that actual personal experience informs a movie’s narrative flavor doesn’t, of course, guarantee its quality in any way, shape or form — a fact reaffirmed by writer-director Mike Pavone’s “That’s What I Am”, an awkward mish-mash of observational coming-of-age cliches and half-baked moralizing that feels like a bloated, not particularly well sketched episode of “The Wonder Years”.
Set in California during the 1960s, the film centers on 12-year-old Andy (Chase Ellison), a bright but small eighth-grade kid whose favorite teacher, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), pairs him with the school outcast, red-haired and freakishly tall Stanley (Alexander Walters), for a class project. After a dramatic schoolyard incident, Principal Kelner (Amy Madigan) suspends a student for bullying a female classmate, and the vindictive kid feeds his father a malicious rumor about Mr. Simon’s sexuality, causing problems for all involved.
“That’s What I Am” means to be an earnest, uplifting family film, which is all well and good, but the movie evinces a fitful attention span, and Pavone never comes up with a way to successfully stitch together all the disparate, capital-I issues — from bullying, hormonal bloom, sexual preference and the effects of overbearing parents to wan stabs at race relations and tolerance more broadly — with which he peppers his narrative. He tries via adult narration, but this tack succeeds as neither funny and wistful nor nostalgic and knowing. Furthermore, it’s never paid off with any present day bookend, apart from lame “where are they now” character updates that roll under the end credits.
It’s not merely that the movie’s thoughts on homosexuality are outdated (after all, art can and often does illuminate in opposition, by shining a light on backward thinking), it’s that they’re advanced in such inartful, blockheaded fashion, and to little emotional payoff. In this sense, “That’s What I Am” simply fails as a drama. The parent that threatens to “out” Mr. Simon (he’s never confirmed as being gay) and leak word to other parents doesn’t ever receive a moment of satisfaction when his power play works, which would underscore an audience’s disgust and lack of identification with him.
Other portions of the story are bungled, as well. Andy’s burgeoning relationship with class hottie Mary (Mia Rose Frampton), who’s “gone steady” with almost every guy at school, could be used to either draw out a new-found confidence or comparative nervousness, the latter over basically being on the bottom of her list. Instead, Pavone does neither. While he wrings some quiet comedy out of Mary’s smiling, eye-batting air-quote predatory nature, he mostly just uses Andy’s relationship with her to cram in a few more lessons about bullying. (The lesson: it’s bad.)
Finally, the film’s acting runs the gamut, from sublime — Harris, as usual, is dignified and wholly invested — to merely passable, and then worse. Pavone elicits generally solid readings from his adolescent performers, though Ellison is a walking collection of constipated grimaces. In a key supporting role, however, WWE superstar Randy Orton is terrible. An actor? Clearly, that’s not what he is.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.