Film Review: That's What I Am

What we learn here is that bullying is definitely, but definitely, a bad thing. Sadly, so is this film.

Middle school is hell once more in That's What I Am, which presents a 1965 small-town California universe rife with bullies who endlessly persecute helpless, innocent nerds on the campus. Twelve-year-old Andy (Chase Ellison) is dismayed when he is paired on a class assignment with Stanley (Alexander Walters), a Dumbo-eared, gentle giant of a straight A-student who is the school pariah, known by the derisive moniker Big G (for his unfortunate shock of ginger hair). Andy finds himself automatically labeled a nerd by association, and becomes, along with Stanley, the target of the most vicious bully, Carl (Cameron Deane Stewart), and his evil posse. The only respite from the daily abuse is everyone's favorite instructor, Mr. Simon (Ed Harris), who tries to teach the kids compassion, while being vilified himself for his supposed homosexuality.

If it is true that God is in the details, there certainly wasn't any divine presence presiding over this clunky, oozingly sentimental and consistently off-pitch plea for tolerance. From the first shot of Stanley wearing a gigantic pair of risibly fake prosthetic ears to period errors such as kids spouting 2011 expressions like "Work with me here" and "Focus!”, writer-director Mike Pavone gets it excruciatingly wrong. His heart is undeniably in the right place, but his execution reeks to high heaven.

The film is narrated by the "adult Andy" in that clichéd, pseudo-"literary" style stemming from television's "Wonder Years," which only adds an annoying layer of self-satisfied sanctimoniousness. Pavone lingers on the bullying scenes—like a hapless, orthodontically hampered girl being brutally whipped by Carl—with an unseemly relish that feels exploitative, and tries to leaven this by presenting Mr. Simon's class as a utopian safe haven, where he reads from a book about the martyred Joan of Arc. Even the attempt to provide Andy with some love interest in the form of a doll-faced classmate, Mary (Mia Rose Frampton, daughter of rocker Peter), is sullied by Pavone's vulgar notion to present her as the school slut. Andy's other classmates are enacted by sloppily cast performers who look like they range in age from 10 to 25.

Stanley, although he could easily defend himself, is presented as a paragon of suffering, non-violent forbearance, a cross between Christ, Quasimodo and Gandhi, a wholly unbelievable, kindly Golem concept that defeats any attempt by Walters to humanize him. Ellison, with his off-putting, uncertain acting and piping voice, does not make a compelling protagonist. Overly intense Daniel Yelsky plays his other geek buddy, Norman, like a Catskills comedian.

Harris, weirdly dressed like a ventriloquist's dummy with careful horn-rims and ubiquitous bow-tie, tries hard to be a modern, saintly variant of Mr. Chips, but Pavone's decision to keep his actual sexuality a cryptic mystery is no help. A photo of Mr. Simon with his dead wife is proffered as supposed definitive proof of his heterosexuality, but what about those blazingly red trousers he wears to teach in class, in 1965? Harris’ wife Amy Madigan plays the fair-minded school principal with furrow-browed seriousness and Daniel Roebuck blusters as Andy's macho, clueless dad. Molly Parker, as his sympathetic wife, manages to inject the only notes of quiet, authentic humanity here. Produced by World Wrestling Entertainment Studios, the film ridiculously casts pro-wrestler Randy Orton (anachronistically reeking of steroids) as Carl's jerk of a father, who starts the witch hunt against Mr. Simon.