Review: That’s What I Am (2011)

That’s What I Am (2011)

Directed by: Michael Pavone | 119 minutes | drama, comedy | Actors: Ed Harris, Chase Ellison, Molly Parker, Daniel Roebuck, Randy Orton, Daniel Yelsky, Alexander Walters, Mia Rose Frampton, Amy Madigan, Camille E. Bourgeois III, Renwick D. Scott II, Jordan Reynolds, Vanessa Cloke, Sarah Celano Dalton Mitchell, Raymond Philip Michael Diamond, Joe Chrest, Geraldine Singer, Cameron Deane Stewart, Holly Settoon, Alex Hardee, Brett Lapeyrouse, Taylor Faye Ruffin, Cassidy Smith, Sean Michael Cunningham, William Faust, Greg Kinnear

Ed Harris (1950) has been considered one of the best actors of his generation for years. Already in the early eighties he earned the necessary accolades, including for his role as astronaut John Glenn in ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983). He would be nominated four times for an Academy Award, for ‘Apollo 13’ (1995), ‘The Truman Show’ (1998), ‘Pollock’ (his directorial debut in 2000) and ‘The Hours’ (2002). In addition, several stage awards, including an Off-Broadway Theater Award, are on his mantelpiece. Harris has the rare gift of lifting a film that may not be that special in itself. It is partly because of his presence that ‘That’s What I Am’ (2010), a nostalgic coming-of-age drama set in a California sleeping town in the mid-sixties, looks away so pleasantly. Despite a lack of originality, this film manages to captivate you with its charm and modesty.

Thirteen-year-old Andy Nichol (Chase Ellison) struggles to get through the school year as unobtrusively as possible. He gets reasonable to good grades, is not popular but is certainly not one of the outcasts. When his favorite teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) instructs him to complete the school year’s closing assignment with the school’s biggest misfit, a red-haired giant with floppy ears (Alexander Walters), making it difficult for him to finish the school year without conflict. He has no idea that Mr. Simon has good reason to associate him with ‘Big G’. As if his worries weren’t enough, he falls in love with the popular Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton, rocker Peter’s daughter) and his favorite teacher’s career is jeopardized by a frustrated bully (Camille Bourgeois ) sends an evil gossip into the world. It is noteworthy that this drama comes from the stable of WWE Movies, the film arm of the professional wrestling organization in the US. The only element that references the WWE is wrestling superstar Randy Orton’s small but pivotal role as the father of bully Jason Freel, who killed Mr. Simon is only too happy to be pilloried.

‘That’s What I Am’ is a friendly and recognizable ‘coming-of-age drama’ that harks back to the sixties. Screenwriter Mike Pavone (who also directed) has turned it into a typical American plea for tolerance and dignity, which, despite the moralizing tone, never becomes compelling. Here and there the script falls a bit short and the course of the film can be (mostly) guessed, but because this is clearly a product that was made with love, you forgive ‘That’s What I Am’ its flaws. The story is told smoothly and the acting is excellent across the board. The film also exudes a nice, nostalgic atmosphere, because the sets are composed with great attention to detail. Voice-overs are often a sign of weakness, but in ‘That’s What I Am’ the commentary by Greg Kinnear (as the grown-up Andy) is in no way disturbing.

The very young protagonist Chase Ellison is a great talent. Apparently without any effort he manages to get the viewer’s audience involved in his experience. That this film is so charming and likeable is largely because of him. The other young actors also put in excellent performances. They show how cruel children can be, but also how forgiving and benevolent. Except for Orton, who just doesn’t belong in the sixties picture of this film, all adults play solid too. Pay particular attention to Molly Parker as Andy’s mother and Amy Madigan (Ed Harris’s wife) as the school principal. The sensitive little scene in which Madigan kindly but urgently asks Harris to open up is very rewarding.

‘That’s What I Am’ doesn’t really excel at anything. It’s a film like so many others, but one that was made with a lot of love and it shows. It turns this little coming-of-age drama into a sweet and sympathetic film that is pleasant and easy to watch.

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