×

That’s What I Am

Agreeable, uplifting and earnest almost to a fault, "That's What I Am" is a family-friendly rumination on tolerance.

With:
Mr. Simon - Ed Harris
Mrs. Nichol - Molly Parker
Principal Kelner - Amy Madigan
Andy Nichol - Chase Ellison
Ed Freel - Randy Orton
Mr. Nichol - Daniel Roebuck
Mary Clear - Mia Rose Frampton
Carl Freel - Cameron Deane Stewart
Norman Gunmeyer - Daniel Yelsky
The Big G - Alexander Walters
Jason Freel - Camille E. Bourgeois III
Ricky Brown - Jordan Reynolds

Agreeable, uplifting and earnest almost to a fault, “That’s What I Am” is a family-friendly rumination on tolerance. The story of a student and a teacher who stand up to prejudice, writer-director Michael Pavone’s feature benefits from sensitive, restrained thesping, most notably by Ed Harris, and leaves one feeling blandly inspired. Planning an April release, Samuel Goldwyn Films could maximize pic’s cross-generational appeal with a thoughtful marketing campaign, perhaps buttressed by screenings at schools and civic institutions.

Tonally, the WWE-produced coming-of-age drama alternates between the gentle irony of “The Wonder Years” and a more soberly didactic ABC Afterschool Special. Set in California in the 1960s, the story unfolds from the p.o.v. of 12-year-old Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison). Andy’s wry, knowing narration, voiced from his adult perspective, lends the proceedings a warmly nostalgic tinge that’s offset by some of the film’s darker thematic elements.

Popular on Variety

Andy is the sort of thoughtful, motivated adolescent teachers like Mr. Simon (Harris) adore. Still, Andy’s not impervious to peer pressure. When, for a class project, he finds he’s been teamed with an outsized, misunderstood pariah dubbed “the Big G” (Alexander Walters), Andy wonders if Mr. Simon is trying to teach him a lesson.

To his great surprise, Andy discovers his teammate is kind, compassionate, and loyal. Far more threatening are the school’s inevitable bullies and rumor mongerers, who manage to tarnish even Mr. Simon’s reputation. When the local bully’s dad (WWE champ Randy Orton, pitch-perfect) accuses his son’s teacher of being a homosexual, the principal (Amy Madigan) finds herself in a tough spot. For his part, Mr. Harris, a widow, refuses to dignify the allegations. That dilemma leads to a surprising denouement and a moving, briefly sentimental coda.

One wishes Pavone (whose directing credits include TV’s “Everwood” and “Jack and Jill”) had recognized the glut of overly familiar characters — brutish bully, inspirational teacher, misunderstood loner. Nevertheless, some actors stand out from the pack. Walters gives unexpected heart to his work as the Big G, and as Andy’s potential love interest, lovely Mia Rose Frampton (daughter of rocker Peter) acts with precocious confidence, suggesting she’s a talent to watch. And as Andy’s mom, Molly Parker is a voice of reason, pushing against a current of McCarthy-like zealots.

Parker, Madigan and Harris are the sorts of thesps who regularly unearth hidden depths and nuances in their roles. In another actor’s hands, Mr. Simon might have seemed but a footnote in the endless cinematic gallery of inspirational teachers. He may lack the forceful charisma of a Jaime Escalante or the eccentric charm of a Mr. Miyagi, but Mr. Simon’s strongest teaching tools are his emotional reserve and quiet dignity.

One plot point could have stood some explanation. “That’s What I Am” depicts no shortage of prejudice: Kids are teased for being too tall, harassed for being too geeky and belittled for having lunch in the wrong part of the schoolyard. What’s more, homophobia is a scourge so potent it begets whisper campaigns. Yet while the film takes place during the civil-rights movement, racism is apparently irrelevant, as black and white students interact without so much as a raised eyebrow.

Tech aspects are OK if unexceptional. New Orleans doubles for California locations.

That's What I Am

Production: A Samuel Goldwyn Films release of a WWE studios presentation. Produced by Michael Pavone, Denise Chamian. Co-producer, Nancy Hirami. Directed, written by Michael Pavone.

Crew: Camera (Fotokem color), Kenneth Zunder; editor, Marc Pollon; music, James Raymond; music supervisor, Matt Kierscht; production designer, Raymond Pumilia; set decorator, Ryan Martin Dwyer; costume designer, Claire Breaux; sound (Dolby SR/ DTS), Dino Dimuro, Glynna Grimala; supervising sound editors, Anna MacKenzie, Xavier Horan; line producer, Todd Lewis. Casting, Denise Chamian, Elizabeth Coulon, Ania Kamieniecki-O'Hare; assistant director, Nick Satriano. Reviewed on DVD, Santa Barbara, Feb. 2, 2011. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival -- Centerpiece Presentation.) Running time: 101 MIN.

With: Mr. Simon - Ed Harris
Mrs. Nichol - Molly Parker
Principal Kelner - Amy Madigan
Andy Nichol - Chase Ellison
Ed Freel - Randy Orton
Mr. Nichol - Daniel Roebuck
Mary Clear - Mia Rose Frampton
Carl Freel - Cameron Deane Stewart
Norman Gunmeyer - Daniel Yelsky
The Big G - Alexander Walters
Jason Freel - Camille E. Bourgeois III
Ricky Brown - Jordan Reynolds

More Film

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    '1917,' 'Succession' Among Top PGA Award Winners

    “1917” continued its string of major awards season wins on Saturday night, earning the Producers Guild of America award for best picture. Coupled with its win for best picture, drama at the Golden Globes, the WWI movie is officially the front runner for Oscar’s top prize. “It’s a film that is a tribute to all [...]

  • Bong Joon Ho, Jane Rosenthal, David

    Netflix Praised by 'The Irishman,' 'Marriage Story' Filmmakers at Producers Guild Panel

    Streaming giant Netflix received strong support from filmmakers behind “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” at the Producers Guild of America’s nominees panel on Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Jane Rosenthal, one of “The Irishman” producers, said Netflix embraced the vision that she and Martin Scorsese had for the $170 million film. [...]

  • Gabriel Harel on MyFFF ‘The Night

    Gabriel Harel Discusses Dystopic Parable ‘The Night of the Plastic Bags’

    With his first short film, the animated “Yùl and the Snake,” Gabriel Harel won Europe’s Cartoon d’Or for the continent’s best animated short film, given at the 2016 Cartoon Forum in Toulouse. Now, Harel’s awaited sophomore effort, the animated “The Night of the Plastic Bags,” competes at UniFrance’s MyFrenchFilmFestival, and is available on a swathe [...]

  • MyFrenchFilmFestival: Profiling Benjamin Crotty’s Short ‘Nicolas

    ‘The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin’: Nationalism Wrapped in Charisma

    Winner of Locarno’s Signs of Life section, Benjamin Crotty’s “The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin” has enjoyed more than 12 months of festival success and critical acclaim as it reaches the end of its festival run at UniFrance’s MyFrenchFilmFestival. A modern take on one of France’s most influential yet widely unknown characters, the film headlines [...]

  • Alexander Ludwig

    Alexander Ludwig on Sharing his Recovery Journey, Playing the 'Bad Boys' Tech Guy

    With his towering height and stature, Alexander Ludwig looks every bit the action star, first appearing as Cato in “The Hunger Games,” and more recently as fierce Norse Viking chief Bjorn Ironside on History Channel’s “Vikings” and in “Bad Boys for Life,” the third installment of the “Bad Boys” franchise, with Will Smith and Martin [...]

  • Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star

    Box Office: 'Bad Boys for Life' Scores Big With $66 Million Launch

    “Bad Boys for Life” is showing plenty of power at the North American box office with an impressive  launch of around $66 million at 3,740 venues over the four-day holiday weekend. Sony’s sequel to 1995’s “Bad Boys” and 2003’s “Bad Boys II” far exceeded the studio’s pre-release forecasts of a $38 million weekend. The film, [...]

  • A Bump Along the Way Movie

    'A Bump Along the Way': Film Review

    While “Derry Girls” continues to be the last word in young, raucous female rebellion on the Emerald Isle, “A Bump Along the Way” has a little something to add. Sin the same Northern Irish city as the hit Netflix sitcom, but shedding the ’90s nostalgia for the Snapchat age, Shelly Love’s appealing, unassuming debut feature [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content