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.
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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.