US Release Date: 04/29/2011
Directed by:Michael Pavone
Ed Harris as Mr. Simon in That's What I Am.
That’s What I Am is a well-intentioned anti-bullying movie from the WWE that plays like an after-school special from the 1970s. Its message is dealt with a heavy-hand and the reality it depicts is far from convincing. It does feature some decent acting and has a few moments of genuine emotion even though the ending is a bit too pat. The overused device of voice-over narration by the now grownup central character is reminiscent of A Christmas Story and Stand By Me to name just two examples. Both of those are far superior movies however.
Set in suburban California in 1965 it centers on the coming-of-age of 13-year-old Andy Nichol. He is your average 8th grade kid who spends his days avoiding conflict at his middle-school while secretly crushing on the pretty, popular girl. His life is changed when everyone’s favorite teacher, Mr. Simon, assigns him to write an essay with the school outcast; a tall redheaded kid with huge ears that everyone taunts and calls The Big G.
Will Andy learn a valuable life lesson by the end credits? Will Andy have his first kiss with his dream girl? Will Andy have an inspirational moment with Mr. Simon? If you don’t already know the answers to these questions then you clearly need to see more movies.
SPOILER ALERT: The main conflict with the adults in the movie comes when one of the students accuses Mr. Simon of being a (gasp) homosexual. Mr. Simon, it turns out, isn’t gay (although he does wear a bow tie). But rather than fight the accusation (or question why it matters) he agrees to step down at the end of the school year.
I understand that in 1965 very few communities would have accepted an openly gay man teaching middle-school. Still not one character openly questions that mentality. The principal just wants him to deny the charges in order to defend him. I would have been more willing to accept the reality of this viewpoint if the movie had maintained a consistently believable reality. The school Andy attends is harmoniously racially integrated, having, it seems, miraculously avoided any of the Civil Rights conflicts that were so prevalent in schools at that time in America.
The title of the movie comes from Mr. Simon’s mantra. “I’m a teacher. That’s what I am.” Sure this movies’ heart is in the right place but the flaws in writer/director Michael Pavone’s script dampen its message of tolerance.
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Randy Keith Orton as Ed Freel in That's What I am.
You are right Patrick, the blind ignorance of racial attitudes displayed here is a whopper of a flaw. I am not suggesting everyone was a bigot, but there were schools that were still segregated then. Andy and his best friend spend time together without a single reference to each others differences. No one else brings it up as well. That may be how it should be, but it certainly was not that way in 1965. My best friend in high school was black and we were reminded of it often, from blacks and whites, and that was 20 years after this movie takes place.
Another misstep is in the maturity level of the 8th graders. The catalyst moment comes when a boy thinks he got cooties from a girl. As a parent of two sons who within just the past few years have been through middle school, I can tell you that "cooties" is a disease that only afflicts elementary school students. I myself recall getting into trouble for teasing a girl about it in elementary school. By middle school, you are no longer trying to avoid being touched by a girl. In fact, the opposite is true.
My son is a huge WWE fan and we watched this solely because Randy Orton is in it. For Orton fans, let me warn you, he appears in a total of three scenes. He shares two scenes with Madigan that get mildly heated, but not overly so. He needed one more scene near the end with Harris. Orton convincingly plays the man causing him grief yet they never share a single scene together. Even one where they bump into each other and merely acknowledge one and other would have made a better conclusion to their opposing attitudes than what we get here. As a DVD bonus, Orton does appear in a making of section all his own, with interview, behind the scenes clips and his audition.
That's What I am touches on some nice moral messages about standing up to a bully. Andy learns to stand up to Ricky, and Norman learns to stand by his friend even if it may be embarrassing. This again enforces the need for a scene where Mr. Simon, at the very least, walks proudly by Ed Freel. There are some decent ideas at work here but the writing was not accurate. In the film, Mr Simon suggests that Andy avoid melodrama in his writing. Writer/director Michael Pavone should have included more melodrama in his script. Audiences respond to character's expressing deep emotions much more than they do to cute scenes of 8th graders kissing, while a narrator rambles on.
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