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April 29, 2011

Film Review: That’s What I Am

That’s What I Am is the latest in a string of family films produced by WWE Studios, following the likes of  Legendary (2010) and The Chaperone (2011). Although it is clearly a message film from the outset, it has a good heart, solid performances by young actors, and enough of a multi-layered story to keep you interested, though it lacks the sophistication of its counterparts and doesn’t fully satisfy its audiences.

In 1965 California, Chase Ellison (Tooth Fairy) plays Andy Nichol, an eighth grader who just wants to fit in, stay clear of bullies, and get the girl. His charismatic and slightly effeminate English teacher Mr. Simon, played by Oscar nominee Ed Harris (The Hours), pairs Andy with the school’s social pariah Big G, played by newcomer Alexander Walters, to work on an assignment. Andy must decide if he’s willing to maintain his neutral status and disappoint his favorite teacher or complete the assignment and make himself prey to the bullies — add to the mix Andy’s adoration of Mary Clear, played by veteran rocker Peter Frampton’s daughter Mia Rose Frampton. Andy thinks he won’t stand a chance with Mary if he’s caught hanging out with Big G. Meanwhile, Mr. Simon is accused by one of the bullies of being a “homo,” and his father, played by WWE Superstar Randy Orton, threatens to go public with the rumor if the school doesn’t remove Simon. As you probably have guessed, Big G and Mr. Simon are the moral compasses of the film and they help guide Andy to do the right thing and learn some life lessons.

The ’60s setting doesn’t detract from the universal themes of tolerance, overcoming bullying, and dignity. It’s the cheesy heavy handedness that does. The narrator is overbearing, often retelling the events occurring on screen instead of providing any insight. The film centers on 13 year olds, and a cursing tween character reinforces the target age group, but children five years younger are more sophisticated than this film plays them to be. If they removed the cursing, the film could easily be a network “movie of the week.” The performances and production value are adequate, but the sincere moments are milked far too long. I had to work hard to suppress my groans during the many “message” moments. Although I appreciate the film broaching the issue of a gay teacher, the subject is handled in a manner too progressive to believe in the 1960s setting.

Harris’s performance rides the “is he or isn’t he gay” line spot on, aided by Claire Breaux’s wardrobe. He settles easily into the reverently admired authority figure. Orton’s first turn on the big screen is not a bad showing. His performance is not as wooden as some of his WWE counterparts, but he is clearly outmatched by veteran Amy Madigan (TV’s Fringe) who plays the principal. Newcomer Walters gave a strong performance as the soft-spoken but dignified Big G. Despite this, I could not help but think of films like The Mighty (1998) that pulled off this same message more effectively.

Overall, the film is not horrible; it’s just not great. It has an important message, and if you can get over the cursing, the film is better suited for eight to ten year olds than middle schoolers, and most parents will get through it without too much suffering.

The film opens in limited release this Friday, to be followed by a DVD release on May 17.

Limité Rating: 2.5/5

Director: Mike Pavone

Writer: Mike Pavone

Cast: Ed Harris, Chase Ellison, Amy Madigan, Mia Rose Frampton, Alexander Walters, Daniel Yelsky, Randy Orton

Genre: Family/Coming of Age

Runtime: 101 min.

Release Date: April 29, 2011

posted by: Stephanie Dawson
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labels: Film,Review

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