“That’s What I Am” is a “Flipped” style period piece about tolerance, learning people’s true value and the cruelty of childhood. It stars the always terrific Ed Harris as a beloved teacher threatened by rumors about his sexuality in 1960s Southern California, and Chase Ellison as a student who learns that there are more important things than what other people whisper about somebody.
Ellison (of “Tooth Fairy”) is Andy, a hormonal middle schooler coping with bullies, girls and fitting in. He’s every bit as fixated on his social status as that infamous “Wimpy Kid” of diary and big screen. And that’s why he’s mortified to be paired up with the class “geek” for a class project. “The Big G” (Alexander Walters) is a tall, ungainly redhead whose “head is too big for his body and ears too big for his head.” Smart or not, everybody picks on him.
Mr. Simon (Harris) is the teacher who teams them up. He sees potential in Andy.
“Define yourself as what you want to be,” he preaches. As in, “‘I am a writer. That’s what I am.’”
The bullying at Jefferson Middle School has become ingrained in the place, with designated areas for the outcasts, elaborate and cruel rituals to rid oneself of “cooties” and wedgies and worse for those who don’t abide by the rules. Mr. Simon, a dapper and somewhat theatrical teacher, injects himself into this combat and that’s when the rumors start. Want to get rid of a teacher who cracked down on you? Accuse him of being gay.
Harris plays this guy right down the middle, giving us doubts as to his true nature, convincing us that his dignity won’t let him answer the pleas of the principal (Amy Madigan) who wishes he’d defend himself. Andy waffles, as kids will do, trying to decide how to do the right thing and just what doing the right thing will cost him. Daniel Roebuck plays Andy’s perfectionist father, whose tolerance will be tested. And wrestler Randy Orton underplays the father of a bully, letting us see the tree this bad apple fell from.
Walters, a screen newcomer, makes Big G more self-aware than his classmates. He is both resigned to the abuse and bullying and above it.
“I can’t make them be nice people,” he says.
Writer-director Michael Pavone, a veteran of episodic TV, goes off course in the second half of the film as we lose track of the supposed eye-opening relationship with Big G in favor of Andy’s middle school flirtation with the school’s “It Girl,” Mary Clear (Mia Rose Frampton, cute in the part). And there are times when the picture feels like a cop-out, as if the producers don’t quite want to make the big statement that they claim to.
But a winning narration (read by Greg Kinnear) holds things together. And there’s just enough script for a good cast to run with. Harris and Madigan lift the whole enterprise just by being who and what they are — great actors.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic material throughout, language and some bullying.
Cast: Chase Ellison (Andy Nichol), Ed Harris (Mr. Simon), Amy Madigan (Principal Kelner), Randy Orton (Ed Freel), Mia Rose Frampton (Mary Clear)
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Pavone, produced by Nancy Hirami and Todd Lewis. A WWE Studios/Samuel Goldwyn release. Running time: 1:41.