That’s What I Am review

A film produced by WWE that's got nothing to do with wrestling, That's What I Am stars Ed Harris. But is it any good?

Newsflash: bullying is wrong, and the 1960s were a time of rosy-tinted wonder. If either of these seem revelatory, then That’s What I Am may be for you. If not, don’t bother.

Written and directed by Michael Pavone and produced by the WWE Studios production company, That’s What I Am isn’t a wrestling spectacle. Instead, it’s a dumb, blithely simple drama that is all moral and no content.

Andy (Chase Ellison) is a kid on the verge of teenhood who is assigned a collaborative piece of schoolwork with Big G (Alexander Walters), a loner who happens to be tall, supposedly ugly, and, horror of horrors, ginger. At first, Andy is anxious, as every social capital-conscious boy in an American school movie is, to be paired with such an unpopular classmate, but he soon develops a friendship with the guy. Heck, he even learns a couple of things along the way, in particular, that, while Big G and others may look different, act differently, and have different perspectives on the world, picking on them for such difference is bad. And there endeth the lesson.

While ostensibly a drama, everything is too sugar-coated and softened to be compelling, and the frequent attempts at coming of age comedy are thoroughly dull, coming off as a string of tropes, clichés and redundant anecdotes which only entertain the teller. Narratorial asides about baseball cards, the awkwardness of pubescent dating, and doing the local paper round seem like half-arsed lorem ipsum placeholder cues for a Wonder Years reboot. And the young actors, from Ellison’s awkward schtick, to Walters’ big friendly giant act, never begin to convince.

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What is funny, though, is when the film tries to be serious. Surprisingly, for a production from a company that excels at thrilling stunt work, the brief moments of bullying are inert, bloodless, slow-mo affairs. However, one sequence, where Big G stands up to a bully in defence of another pupil, is an unintentional comic highlight, as G lifts the boy clean off the ground and screams an anguished, prolonged “No!” that Elia Kazan would deem excessive.

I should have seen it coming, really, but I was lured in. Why? Because Ed Harris is in it. You’d think that four Academy Award nominations and countless classic performances would lead to an actor developing a sense of judgement when it comes to reading new scripts,and attaching his name to absolute dross, but it’s hard to think of anything other than flattery that attracted Harris to the role of Mr Simon, an unblemished, almost divine figure. He’s Andy’s favourite teacher and, it seems, everyone else’s, even the education board’s.

However, after spouting micro-sermons at his students, Mr Simon becomes the protagonist in his own parable, as a bigoted, vengeful parent (played by the hilariously out of place WWE star, Randy Orton) targets the teacher for daring to discipline his son for bullying, and attempts to get him sacked for potentially being gay.

Once the narrative shifts in this direction, mostly forgetting the initial plotline concerning Big G, Simon warps from a more flamboyant Atticus Finch into a character devoid of action. As he is never questioned, or painted with anything close to ambiguity, the conflict, if you can call it that, happens outside of his grasp. His detractors are unsubtly and lazily cast off as imbeciles, their accusations motivated by hatred, not sense. This leaves his pupils and the few forward-thinking members of the community to save him, as he stands aside.

For Simon’s core virtue is dignity, which Pavone celebrates. Unfortunately, the definition used is the one about not lowering yourself to the level of bullies and idiots, which, in this case, is dramatically useless. The teacher remains perfect, his character is left unexplored, and his outward persona isn’t even discreetly dissected. It is society’s fault that he is, eventually, forced to leave his job in order to preserve said dignity. But don’t worry, this was in the 1960s. We’re better now. In fact, we have insultingly obvious films that teach us how to live.

Although, perhaps the film’s initial message of tolerance is useful in one way. It might be best to leave it be, let it alone, and get on with your own life. For to attack a syrupy, nostalgic morality tale for being syrupy, nostalgic, and moralistic is a fool’s errand. After all, that’s what it is.

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1 out of 5