In a somewhat similar vein to Alabama Moon, That’s What I Am is a film whose distribution path deserves a little bit of attention. The only place I heard of this playing was New York’s Quad Cinema and it was for one weekend only. Considering that I was going to be in New York that weekend I tried to shoehorn it into my plans but alas could not.
I later found out that it would shortly be available for purchase exclusively through Walmart. As if that’s not enough quirks it’s also a release from WWE, yes, as in World Wrestling Entertainment. For those of you groaning: aside from having a wrestler play a small part (Randy Orton whom I was glad to learn is also a producer for the film) there’s no wrestling involvement in the story.
That’s What I Am is a film in several ways that is sold and seems to be nothing more than a standard coming-of-age tale. However, there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye from the trailer. The film’s journey, as seen through its protagonist Andy (Chase Ellison), is the narrative of a formative time rather than one singular incident. The fact that the incidents that pervade this film are balanced relatively well gives this film a quasi-European aesthetic, why it doesn’t quite reach it will be shown later.
The trailer would lead you to believe that there are two main thrusts to the tale: not judging a book by its cover and discovering what one is, in short tolerance. Yet there’s far much more more to it.
Perhaps the most unexpected is the narrative strand that dominates a lot of the film is the allegation that the ever-popular uber-teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Simon) is gay. Considering that it’s set in the 1960s this is a perfectly legitimate grounds for termination (according to society) and it sets up a lot of the conflict and brings up the theme of tolerance in a different regard. Ed Harris is wonderful as usual and his initial denial to even respond is fantastic. I’ll not give away how this strand ends but he does eventually answer the question definitively in private and I wish he hadn’t. I think a stronger statement is made by his steadfastly saying “It doesn’t matter, I’m a good teacher.”
That serves to highlight the inconsistency in writing. Some of the dialogue isn’t as sharp as it needs to be and on occasion stumbles into the bad range but overall it is serviceable. There is plentiful voice-over by Andy as adult reflecting back which brings to mind Stand by Me because he is a writer but it nowhere near as strong.
There is also a romantic subplot in this film but what is refreshing about it is that it doesn’t dominate the narrative and it’s not a puppy love or I’m-gonna-die-if-she’s-not-mine crush it’s an attraction and the girl has a reputation, which lends some humor to it. In the Big G (Andrew Walters) subplot, the one that kicks the film off, wherein Andy is paired with him for an assignment, his being mocked for his appearance and nerdiness is only part of the equation. The other facet is that he never hesitates to be who he is and not be afraid of ridicule, meanwhile, his best friend Norman (Daniel Yelsky) is obsessed with blending in and they fight over this issue a few times.
Despite a few weak spots in the adult nucleus this film is buoyed by the strong performances of its young cast. Namely Chase Ellison, an actor whose had many strong turns either in small roles or smaller films, is a very effective “Everykid,” in this film and unlike many other films of its ilk doesn’t necessarily strike you as awkward trying to play awkward and seems to relate greatly to the part. Andrew Walters does a very effective job being the stoic, picked on Big G and I was glad to learn that in his big scene at the talent show he did his own stunt, so to speak. Daniel Yelsky is also convincing as the neurotic and fearful foil to Big G and Mia Rose Frampton plays a toned down, sweeter version of the character she is in the funniest scene in Bridesmaids.
There are a few instances in which I wish this film handled things more deftly or differently but ultimately I was quite pleased with indeed. This is a film that’s worth seeking out and is suitable viewing for the family, keeping rating in mind of course.
That’s What I Am is also available to stream on Netflix.